I watched the smoke drift lazily for a moment before dispersing in the wind. Bringing the cigarette up to my lips, I took a long drag. The world melted away with the inhale, only to be brought back with an exhaled sigh. Glancing at the thin, gold watch latched to my wrist, I bit my lip. Time never seemed to move this quickly while sitting behind my desk.
The night sky was crisp and clear, your stereotypical perfect autumn night. It was just brisk enough for me to wear a fleece over my pastel pink scrubs. The stars were barely visible within city limits and the brightly lit Allina Medical Center painted everything a blue-green tint.
I stared down at the cigarette pinched between manicured fingers, mesmerized by the rose-colored lip prints on the filter, when suddenly my reverie was broken by the sound of a siren approaching. Jack and Emma were undoubtedly returning from an emergency call. My hunch was confirmed as the ambulance turned off the highway into the medical center parking lot. The sirens went silent, but the red and blue lights still flashed wildly. I smiled and waved at the vehicle as it drove past into the ER parking bay. Sighing one last time, I snuffed the cigarette out in the nearby ashtray and strode through the hospital’s sliding glass doors.
“Evening, Ms. Ellis,” greeted a heavy-set man sitting behind a small podium-like desk. His uniform was navy blue, the collar of which dug into the folds in his neck as if to strangle him. Beads of sweat clung to his forehead, it seemed existing itself required strenuous effort.
“Hi, Frank,” I replied, waving. Frank was a nice man, but given his lifestyle, he’d be lucky to make it past forty. He smiled then flipped the page on the magazine he was reading and took a quiet sip of his sixty-four ounce fountain drink.
I turned away from his desk and continued to the elevator. The lower floor of the hospital held a large reception area. Dozens of empty chairs lined the room with strategically placed TVs all broadcasting the same news program. Veronica, the overnight receptionist, sat behind her wide, low desk, twirling a strand of hair, oblivious to her surroundings. She was young and dumb, just out of high school. ‘That was me six years ago,’ I thought, shaking my head.
The up button responded with a soft yellow glow. Allina Medical Center was small compared to other hospitals around the metro area; it consisted of three floors. The first held the reception area and lab, as well as the waiting, examination, and emergency rooms. The second and third floors were filled with in-patient rooms.
The elevator announced its arrival to the second floor with a muted *ding*. The nurse station was positioned in the middle of the floor and was manned by myself and Thomas Brody. My skin tingled whenever I thought about him. He was tall, dark, and handsome, the perfect cliché. Realizing I was standing alone at the end of the hall motionless, I giggled to myself. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost myself in that dream.
I stopped in front of the nurse station desk, hung my fleece coat on the nearby hook, and tucked my hands under my arms in a mock attempt to warm them up. “Brrr,” I said, my lips curling into a grin.
“In a few months you’ll be wishing it was this warm out,” Thomas replied, returning the smile. He also wore scrubs, although his were powder blue. He had jet black hair that hung short and loose around his ears. His eyes were a soft brown and his jaw seemed cut from granite, complete with a five o’clock shadow that seemed ever-present. He was handsome, bordering on gorgeous. Even if I wasn’t with David, I’d still likely never have to courage to ask him out.
“Who’s the new arrival?” I asked, circling the desk to my chair beside Thomas. He swiveled it about chivalrously and I silently thanked him with another smile and flushed cheeks.
“Jack said they weren’t sure what was wrong with him. He has a 104 degree fever, so they brought him in,” Thomas answered, scribbling on a chart with the name Ben Jenkins on it, “He’s stable, so they brought him right up.”
“We can always use more company, right?” I joked, idly picking up the novel sitting on the desk and opening it to its bookmarked page. I caught Thomas smiling out of the corner of my eye and found myself transfixed. ‘I could let David down easy,’ I thought, ‘and tell him that it’s not his fault—‘
“Damn it!” a curse from down the hall echoed.
Both Thomas and I started at the sudden break of silence. He quickly rose from his seat to investigate while I set my book down and leaned over the desk to get a better view of the hall. A nurse was hunched over one of the wash sinks, Gwen, the tramp. I sank back into my seat with a resigned sigh. Even if I left David and asked Thomas out, I had to contend with Gwen. She was a petite five and a half feet tall with chestnut hair that cascaded over her shoulders like a silk. She had bright green eyes, flirtatious pouty lips, and a chest that cost two month’s salary.
Frustrated, I swiped the book from my desk and reclined a bit in the old, comfortable office chair. I sat for a few moments before folding the book closed once again. ‘Great, I can’t even focus on reading.’ I was just about to stand up when Thomas returned.
“Looks like Gwen stuck herself,” he explained, returning to his seat. “She was trying to administer an IV to Mr. Jenkins, the new guy,” He began jotting a few more notes on the patient’s records, then looked up at me and smiled. “Don’t you hate when you can’t find a vein? I have nightmares about that sometimes.”
My anger melted away. “Y-yeah, that’s too bad about Gwen. Is she alright?” I feigned concern.
“She’ll be fine. She’ll have to come back in the morning to give a blood sample to the lab. You know, make sure she didn’t pick anything up.” He finished jotting his comments down and stood up once more. “I’ll be right back,” he reassured, “just have to put Mr. Jenkins’ chart in his room.”
I watched him walk back toward the newcomer’s room, passing Gwen in the hall. They waved to each other and Gwen continued my direction. She passed the nurse station without as much as a glance at me.
“Sorry to hear about the needle stick,” I announced, trying to not sound sarcastic, but failing, “Hope you’ll be okay.” Gwen cast a sneering glare at me as she summoned the elevator and I rewarded her with a pleasant smile. Leaning back in my chair, I opened my novel and began reading.
* * * * *
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
I dropped my book on the desk, not caring that I had just lost my page. The alarm going off meant someone was flatlining. A quick glance at the screen showed that it was Mr. Jenkins. Thomas had already jumped up from his seat and rounded the desk; I trailed on his heels. Pamela, a nurse from the third floor, was in the hall, pushing a small cart in front of her.
We burst into the room to find Ben Jenkins convulsing in his bed. “Let’s get him restrained,” said Thomas, grabbing one of the patient’s arms. I did the same, struggling to wrap the bed restraints around Mr. Jenkins’ wrist. His skin was cool to the touch, yet dry; he wasn’t sweating.
I looked at the monitor displaying his vital signs and swallowed hard. The heart rate monitor dropped from sixty-five to twenty to zero and resounded with a monotone *Beeeeeeep*. His core temperature read four degrees below normal. “H-his temp is ninety-four!” I exclaimed. My mind raced; I couldn’t grasp what was happening.
“Amber, charge the paddles. Pamela, with me.” Thomas had begun chest compressions, counting audibly as he performed them, “…5, 6, 7…” Pamela stood bedside, waiting. At the count of ten, she pressed her lips against the patient’s and breathed hard. Thomas quickly followed with more compressions. “1, 2, 3…”
I busied myself by powering the defibrillator on the cart and applying contact gel to the paddles. Mr. Jenkins was still thrashing against the restraints and veins were beginning to bulge beneath his skin. His body temperature had dropped another degree. Pamela bent down to breath into his mouth again but reared back suddenly, gagging. Her lips and cheeks were spattered with blood. Looking down at Mr. Jenkins’ now-still body, I watched as blood leaked from his lips and traced small streams from his eyes and ears.
Thomas was standing back, one hand covering his mouth. Pamela was in the corner, coughing into a small towel. I stood motionless, charged shock paddles in my hands. Ben Jenkins was dead.
“Wh-what the hell just happened?” I broke the silence, setting the paddles down and powering off the defibrillator.
“I don’t know,” Thomas plainly stated. A concerned look on his face, he asked, “Pamela, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she replied. Her face told a different story. Although, she had cleaned her face off in the small bathroom attached to the room, she wore a mask of dread.
Seemingly reading her mind, Thomas said, “Make sure you get tested by the lab tomorrow morning. We don’t even have a diagnosis on this guy yet.” He glanced down at the matte silver watch on his wrist and picked up the chart which hung on the foot of the bedrail. “Time of death: 1:37AM, September 14th, 2009.” He wrote the information on the chart as he spoke.
He looked up and the both of us and ordered, “Pamela, why don’t you go back upstairs; Report to me immediately if you start feeling unwell. We can call in Dr. Williams if need be. Amber, why don’t you clean up here and I’ll call the coroner’s office.” He turned on his heel and left the room without waiting for a response. Thomas was always straightforward when it came to business.
Pamela nodded at me as she left the room, leaving me with Mr. Jenkins.
I couldn’t help but stare at the dead body. Blood had seeped into over half the pillow, a gruesome contrast to the stark white sheets and walls. The veins that had been bulging began to turn a sickly violet color and his skin had already visibly paled. Grabbing a pair of latex gloves from the cart, I stretched them over my hands then went to work cleaning the unused defibrillator and wiping up the small blood spill on the floor from Pamela’s incident.
Cleaning only took a few minutes, after which I wheeled the medical cart from the room and closed the door behind me. I then directed it to its home in a small alcove in the wall nearby. Looking down the hall, I could see Thomas at the nurse station staring at a computer monitor. “Thomas, you want some coffee?” I offered, needing something to calm my nerves. The thought of caffeine calming someone’s nerves brought a smile to my face.
“Sure,” he called out, his eyes never leaving the screen. He was likely trying to figure out what could have caused Ben Jenkins’ sudden death. Without the lab’s blood test results, coming to our own conclusion would be difficult, if not impossible. The combination of symptoms didn’t add up.
At the far end of the hall was a small break room. Inside were a mini fridge, table with four chairs, and a small counter with a coffee maker and microwave on it. I opened the cramped cupboard and pulled down two ceramic coffee mugs. I breathed deep; the coffee’s aroma filled the room as I poured it into the cups. Grabbing a small container of sugar, I dashed a bit in each mug, picked them up, and flipped the light off with my elbow.
Thomas was walking toward me as I entered the hall. I tilted my head slightly in wonder, then I heard it.
It was Mr. Jenkins’ room.
Someone was pounding on the walls…from the inside.
Thomas raised a hand at me and I instinctively obeyed, stopping in the middle of the hall, a steaming cup of coffee in each hand. He approached the door, cautiously reaching a hand toward the knob. “Pamela, are you still in there?” I knew she wasn’t, I would have seen or heard her from coming from the stairwell.
Thomas slowly pushed the door open and was immediately tackled, sprawling to the center of the hall’s tile floor. I watched in horror as Ben Jenkins closed his mouth around Thomas’ throat. Mr. Jenkins jerked his head back, torn flesh quivering in his jaw. Thomas attempted to scream, but it came out a gurgle. A torrent of blood was streaming onto the floor in a large pool. Mr. Jenkins clawed at Thomas’ face, digging into his mouth, nose, and eye socket, before bending down and tearing away another sinuous lump of skin and muscle from his cheek. Thomas was being eaten.
I didn’t hear the coffee mugs shatter, didn’t feel the scalding coffee soak into my scrubs and burn my legs. I didn’t even hear myself scream. Ben Jenkins’ head twisted up at me. A sickly groan issued from his mouth, the piece of meat dropping from his jaw with a splash in the growing lake of gore.
I turned and ran. I took the stairs two to three at a time and burst into the first floor hallway with tears streaming down my cheeks. I should have said something. I should have stopped at the reception desk and called the police. I should have told someone to go upstairs and help poor, beautiful Thomas.
I didn’t do any of those things.
“Ms. Ellis, you okay?” Frank asked, obvious concern in his voice. I didn’t listen. Fear drove me out the front door, nearly knocking over one of the coroners as I rushed into the parking lot. There were two of them pushing a stretcher with an empty body bag laying on it. “Miss?” the one I bumped into called out. He was ignored as well while I fumbled in my pocket for my set of car keys.
I swung my car door open and leapt into the driver seat. Slamming the key into the ignition, I started the car and peeled out of the parking lot onto the highway. The sobs came heavily and I choked on my own breath. ‘What am I doing?!’ my mind screamed, ‘I need to call David. I have to see him; he can help.’
I dug through multiple pockets, trying to find my cell phone when I caught a glimpse of a blinking light on the passenger floor of the car. ‘My phone must have slipped out of my pocket on the way into work,’ I thought, relieved to find it. I wiped my swollen, teary eyes and stretched down across the car’s console, reaching for my phone; it was just out of reach. I sat back up, steering the car off the shoulder it had veered onto and shifting myself closer to the edge of my seat. I stretched again down again and scooped the phone into my hand. ‘Got it!’
The car suddenly lurched, feeling as though it had dropped off a cliff. I looked up in time to see the oncoming oak tree.