The Hospital was grayer on the inside than outside. It was longer than it was wide, and in terms of levels, deeper than mere numbers. Patients tended to stay here.
I was once a patient inside The Hospital. The doctors who spoke to me behind their blue .01 micron filtration masks gave me a diagnosis I could not pronounce. When I attempted to look it up in a medical dictionary, there was no such word.
Later, I discovered that I had been discharged five days before but the nurses forgot to tell me. This made my stay at The Hospital expensive.
Because I had no job and no place to live, the director of The Hospital allowed me to stay in one of the small tunnels below basement level. Patients from the main building whose prognosis was poor were often transferred to Building D via these tunnels.
In order to pay my medicals bills, I took a job at The Hospital as a transporter. The director, who spoke to me through various wireless devices, several floors up from wherever I was, allowed me to work a second job in the small nursing home across the street. The Hospital owned the facility.
I thought it was very kind of the director to allow me to work despite my condition. I couldn’t move as smoothly as I once did. Parts of my body, the ones I could no longer name with 100% accuracy, were bandaged. Also, I was slow to see things. But I could transfer one body from a bed to a stretcher or vice versa. And I could push the stretcher for long distances despite my being easily fatigued.
During my first week at both jobs, my schedule was tight. My hours at The Hospital were from 9am to 9pm. My hours at the nursing home were from 9:30am to 1pm. Sometimes I got the days mixed up.
Sometimes I heard echoes in empty patient rooms or through the hallways and I couldn’t remember just where I was. Some of the patients, I was told, stayed up all night just to make sure they were alive. At The Hospital, there were so many dark jokes told with a straight face.
An order came in over the wireless conductor to transport a patient from the 11th floor to Radiology. The elevators were old and shaky and they creaked going up or down.
I pushed the stretcher, No. 14, the one I had been assigned to, in the elevator where a woman in a white lab coat stood towards the back. She was short, had dark deadpan eyes and purplish lipstick. I had met her before in the cafeteria where she told a co-worker how her gums were so soft that when she ate an unripe apple the night before, she bled for over an hour.
I pushed the button to Floor 17 and we both stood there, pretending neither of us were there at all. This was my impression with much of the staff whenever we shared an elevator.
The elevator became stuck between the 9th and 10th floors. It made a long whiny sound and shook so hard it made me giggle. Ever since my operation, I giggle whenever I feel scared. Before that, few things scared me.
“Oh, no,” the woman said in a soft flat tone. The elevator made a grinding sound as if it was trying to move by its own volition. Finally, the woman picked up the red telephone located in the panel and dialed for help. After five minutes, the elevator slowly ascended but only to the 12th floor. There, a voice came over a scratchy speaker that we should exit until further repairs.
In order the reach the 17th floor, I had to push the stretcher to the next elevator which was several wards down. I’m talking about the building’s width. I had to pass several nursing stations, and some of the wards were locked, which meant I needed an access code to be buzzed in. For this, I had to call my department for further instructions and I was told to wait until my supervisor, Miss Herman, was finished with her soup. Lately, she was feeling dehydrated.
I recognized the voice informing me of all this. It belonged to an older man named Dicky, who, according to rumor, had lost two fingers on his left hand due to a botched operation at The Hospital. Nobody in the department liked explaining what exactly happened. Some shrugged or turned away. Dicky never said much about it, except to say it wasn’t really The Hospital’s fault, at least not totally, that after all, he wasn’t paying attention and he still had one good hand.
We all should be thankful for what we still have left, he liked to say.
I never told him my prognosis was 50-50.
I reached Radiology. The technician told me that the patient I was transferring would be the last one he’d take for the day. There was a tattoo of a skeleton on the right side of his neck. He pointed to a clock on the wall but I think the short hand had stopped on ten. While the patient, an elderly lady who was semi-comatose, lay flat, eyes fixed on the ceiling of scattered round lights, the technician tapped endlessly at a keyboard. When I asked him if I could take the patient back to her room, he said I could’ve done that long ago.
“In order to work here at The Hospital,” he said without looking up, “you have to develop a sense of when someone is finished.”
It was about 8:30pm. I was somewhat dizzy and weak, but that could be due partly to my condition that never allowed me to work to full potential or perhaps made me see everything in shades of gray. Sometimes I picked up different patients with the same last names. I often wondered if they had similar conditions. After all, they were in The Hospital. But, as the Director reminded us through daily emails meant to boost morale, we were responsible for our own conditions.
Looming before me was the possibility of a scheduling conflict. In the staff room, which was now crowded, Miss Herman, who sometimes drooled at the lips, often distracted by anything, assigned me to transport a patient from the nursing home to the Main building.
One thing I noticed about the staff here; they sometimes gave incomplete information. And being slow to see didn’t exactly help my situation. I wasn’t given the patient’s name, but I didn’t realize this until I crossed the street with the stretcher.
The street was busy with traffic. By the time I arrived at the nursing home, few lights were on. The charge nurse said I was five minutes late for my part-time job. “No,” I said, “I was sent by The Hospital to pick up a patient, but they didn’t give me a name.”
She went back behind her desk, put on a pair of thick black glasses, and studied her computer screen.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “I’m sorry. You’re a little late. We lost that one about two hours ago.”
I turned to watch an old woman with a walker laboring down the hall. She had a vacant smile and was talking to someone no longer there.
I told the charge nurse of the nursing home that I wouldn’t be in for work that night as I wasn’t feeling well.
“Get better,” she said with a polite and terse smile. She turned and mentioned something to a young attendant about organizing the Bingo game for the following evening. Behind the charge nurse, a male attendant was leafing through an old National Geographic with a cover of a jungle with exotic birds.
Outside, a starless night, I stood next to the curb, waiting to cross with my stretcher. Cars were rushing by even though the speed limit was 25mph. Impatient, I dragged my stretcher along the crosswalk. Surely, I thought, the cars would stop to let me go. How can you be heartless near a hospital?
As I crossed the street to return the stretcher back to the hospital, a car screeched, just missing me.
I turned and yelled, “It’s a crosswalk. I have the right of way.”
The driver backed up the car, stopped, and rolled down the window. He shouted, “After 9pm, the crosswalk no longer exists!” He sped off.
After taking three different elevators (some only went as far as certain floors and started on floors other than the main lobby), I returned the stretcher to the transportation department. Dicky was the only one in the office, checking off a list of stretchers, both missing and accounted for, making notes as to which needed new wheels or cushions.
I asked him what kept him working here.
He looked up at me thoughtfully.
He explained that The Hospital was all there was. He said that everyone who worked there hadn’t survived their operations.
“You mean we’re like zombies?” I asked.
“Something like that,” he said. Our bodies were make to work again by special microchips implanted in various anatomical parts.”
“But if we’re zombies, why is it I can think and feel?”
He smiled and shook his head.
“You think you can feel. You think you’re alive. We’re all living in the supreme mind of The Director. He’s the only one who is truly alive. Our dead bodies were donated to Him by our significant others, ones who never loved us. Our failed brains were rerouted to his. The Director loves us.”
Something inside me squirmed.
“Actually, we don’t exist at all, do we?”
“Only inside The Hospital and its adjacent area.”
“But if you’re dead, how do you know all this?”
“Because of my previous loyalty to The Director when I was alive, I was allowed an advanced ranking.”
“So I will never live in the outside world, will I?”
“No. And it’s much safer in here. Of course, it’s not perfect. There’s always some trace of human breaking through. The longing to escape or to survive. The technology is still at an early stage.”
“I really don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to. All you need to know is that within this hospital, we are all special, governed by The Director. Although I do sometimes miss being alive.”
We stared at each other for several long seconds.
“Please don’t tell anyone this. I lost my fingers for giving out this information. But… I saw something of myself in you. I mean, when I was younger.”
I didn’t ask any more questions. I realized I’d been given privileged information. I wondered if he had ever been a psych patient in Ward 0.
I told him that I was going home, that I wasn’t going to my other job. I pointed below to the tunnels. He made a V sign with the fingers on his good hand and said good night. I took the elevator all the way to the end.
I stopped in a restroom located on a nursing floor. It smelled of too much ammonia. I needed to wash my hands, my face. I felt dirty. I felt unworthy. In the streaked mirror, I imagined the outline of a woman’s face, who may have been my mother. Did she now have stringy gray hair and yellow teeth, well-spaced apart?
The voice said: I need to go back to the old country while I still have my health. I had you in a forgetful moment of the night. There must be so many others like you. You will be taken cared of.
I curled myself against the cold wall of the tunnel. I imagined all the patients above, all twenty or so floors. I imagined their breaths; noisy, deep, shallow, or slowing to nothing. I listened to the silence. I listened to the high-pitched sound of a rat, a skunk, or some homeless rodent not very far from my privileged spot in the tunnel. I squinted and could barely make out a set of small claw prints on the damp floor. I listened to myself. I then closed my eyes and tried to make peace with my condition.
Kyle Hemmings asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work