“Why do you have to evacuate the whole hospital?”
“Will the afflicted patients be alone?”
“How much money do you expect the disruption to cost the township?”
The reporters peppered Dr. William Murray with numerous questions, concerning the recent outbreak of a poorly understood disease to the finances of the hospital’s emergency transition.
Dr. Murray, famed for his research on drug-based treatments for behavioral disorders and sociological issues, was at the podium of the hospital’s press conference room. The intense beams of light dropping down from the ceiling above him were blinding. Sweat trickled down his forehead, onto his nose.
His heart raced. When can I get out of here? he thought to himself. His eyes darted to the left, at the analog clock hanging above the doorway. It was four-thirty in the afternoon. Dr. Murray rubbed his eyes, patting the drooping skin below them.
“Look, people, I’ve been awake for thirty-six hours. We’re transferring all of our one-hundred-fifty patients to the hospitals in the townships of Mottsville and Gerrytown.
After a long conference with our peer hospitals, I elected to send these patients away so that we here at Native Fields can offer the sixteen patients the best care we can possibly give them.
We are a small hospital, with limited resources. And, yes, we are using money sent by the township. Schools will not be closed. We believe this is to be a minor, solvable issue. We just need time. Thank you.”
Dr. Murray stepped off stage, waded through the crowd of journalists itching for some slander to defame his hospital, and exited the conference room. He could hear the buzz of loud conversations, the clacks of flashing cameras, the clanks of camera crews packing their equipment up.
An unexplained malady had gripped the town of Native Fields. Sixteen people, including a doctor’s assistant who worked at Dr. Murray’s hospital, had came down with some sort of ebola-like disease. It didn’t appear to be particularly contagious, fortunately. But the team of medical professionals at Native Fields had no idea how to treat the afflicted.
Dr. Murray’s decision to focus his hospital’s resources on the dangerously ill was widely unpopular with the townsfolk. The mayor of Native Fields was particularly upset that his daughter, who was battling leukemia, had to be transferred to a hospital forty-seven miles away.
Angrily, the mayor had declared the Native Fields hospital to be a hazardous zone, and encouraged residents living within ten-miles of the hospital to temporarily move out. Using his influence with the city council, the mayor had also managed to cut financial support for the hospital.
Dr. Murray, who had no taste for this kind of childish politics, had tried to appeal to the state’s Department of Health. The mayor had blocked off this appeal, too.
For now, Dr. Murray and his fourteen doctors were alone in this fight. He had never seen anything like it. The afflicted patients demonstrated bizarre behavior – they couldn’t eat anything but meat, began to lose their verbal communication, and would thrash about on their hospital beds.
The doctors had to restrain the patients with leather belt-like locks around their arms and ankles. Only three of the afflicted had retained their speech – but they would repeat the same sentence over and over again.
While walking down the hallway, Dr. Murray could feel the sharp, resonant pangs of his black shoes tapping against the white linoleum flooring of the hospital. He was alone, in a virtual quarantine zone around the hospital. How could he possibly fight this?
He entered his office and shut the door. He hesitated for a moment – then he grabbed his key and locked it. He didn’t want to be bothered. After sighing heavily, Dr. Murray went over to his desk and plopped down on his chair with all his weight. He was tired. Disgruntled. And worst of all, unsupported.
He glanced down at the files strewn across the top of his desk. Blood work, psychological analyses, full-body examinations – they yielded nothing. There was only one lead: a misshaped protein found in the blood in the neck.
Hospital analysts couldn’t decipher what the protein did. Initial reports found the protein to be completely benign, which baffled Dr. Murray and his team.
These humans, quite frankly, were losing their humanity. And there was nothing he could do, which, for a doctor, is a viscerally dismaying sensation.
And the mayor? This is how he acts? Anger began to rush through his veins, and his fingers began to clutch the air stiffly. The mayor, when the medical community needs help the most, decides the abandon the very people who are working to save the town? How could he do this? How? That son-of-a...
Bang. Bang. Dr. Murray jumped in his seat, startled. Someone had knocked at the door. Frustrated, he got up and twisted the doorknob open. It was Judy, the head nurse.
“What do you want?” he asked quickly, in a quiet, tired voice.
“There’s a new one.”
Dr. Murray’s eyebrows shot up. “What? Who?”
“A six-year old. She fainted during gym class at school. She exhibits every one of the characteristics of the illness. But…”
“But what?” Dr. Murray asked, his eyes glancing nervously at his staff member.
“She has maintained her full speech capacities. She can talk.”
“Does she repeat the same sentence?”
“No, she’s completely responsive. She vomits, urinates, thrashes around in her bed, and internally bleeds just like the other sixteen. But she can talk.”
Dr. Murray was utterly astonished. “Put her in a consultation room, I’m going to ask her some questions.”
Judy nodded. She was about to carry out his orders when Dr. Murray grabbed her hand. She turned around.
“Go home. And tell the other seven doctors to go home, too. If the patients act like they have been, tonight, nothing will change. I simply need a skeleton staff – two other nurses.”
“Are you sure, sir? I mean–”
“It’ll be all right, Judy. The new machines we have can administer the proper doses correctly without a human administrator. And, if I amp up the Seromptin, to eighty milligrams, they won’t vomit either. No more puke to clean up.” Dr. Murray smiled. Or at least, he tried to. Judy looked enormously thankful.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll let the staff know.”
Dr. Murray followed her out of his office. Now to meet this odd little girl. He walked down one of the hospital’s long and wide hallways, decorated only by fake plants, art from hospitalized children, and chairs.
The Native Fields Center for Medicine was a brand-new facility, commissioned by an act of the mayor himself. It cost the town two-hundred million dollars, largely subsidized by the state – but they installed outdated and inadequate equipment. When doctors requested more modern supplies, machines, and other equipment, the financial burden on the town became crippling.
They had to cut pay for municipal workers, eliminate one elementary school entirely, and get rid of the coffee machines interspersed throughout the town’s government buildings. Angry townspeople denounced the hospital, and public frustration with the town’s medical professionals grew, which is partly why it was so easy for the mayor to alienate the hospital so quickly and systematically.
“‘Sarah’ is your name, correct?” Dr. Murray asked the girl, looking down at his clipboard. He made some marks with his red pen.
“Yes. I’m Sarah,” the girl replied. She appeared fine – gleeful, cheerful, as happy as any six-year old could be. Perhaps she didn’t understand the extent of her illness. This was a good sign, Dr. Murray thought. By talking to her, he could get a better understanding of his patients’ symptoms.
This was a key opportunity that he couldn’t miss – none of the other patients could offer him this insight. Her bright pink hospital attire contrasted starkly against the bleak whiteness of the rest of the room – the walls, the floors, the cabinets, the bed. He desperately wanted to make sure she was truly sick with the unidentified illness before condemning her poor soul to this boring, suffocating hospital.
“So, Sarah, honey, tell me – what happens to you?”
“Sometimes, I feel sick and weird and I don’t feel like playing anymore. Then my Cheerios come out of my mouth. I don’t like it and I cry. And then sometimes my insides feel all weird. I don’t like it either. It hurts a lot. A lot. My mommy can’t help me.”
Vomiting. Internal bleeding. The symptoms matched. Now to test for the protein.
“Okay, honey. You’ve been helping me a lot. Now, I’m gonna go get something really fast, okay? I’m gonna leave you alone for thirty seconds. Do you feel sick right now? Do you want me to call a nurse to keep an eye on you?”
“I feel good,” she said. Her voice was high-pitched and happy, as if nothing was wrong with her.
Dr. Murray left quickly, went to the hospital supply room, and came back with a kit to examine blood. He hid it in his pocket, not wanting to intimidate or scare Sarah with a long needle.
He was about to turn the corner back to the hallway with Sarah’s room when he accidentally bumped into Judy.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he blurted. He noticed she had changed out of her nurse attire. She looked quite beautiful, really, when she wasn’t dressed as a nurse. Her black hair was shiny, long, straight, and well-kept. Her creamy white skin was nearly luminous. “You’re leaving?” he asked, upset that he’d given her permission to leave early.
“Yeah. Almost everyone else is gone, too. Lennon and Maria, the two nurses you asked for, are upstairs keeping an eye on the sixteen.” Judy scanned his exhausted face. He really was quite handsome. She reached her arms behind his neck and kissed him on his lips. Then, she readjusted her backpack, and chirped, “Adios, amigo!”
Dr. Murray grinned, enraptured. He stood there for nearly a whole minute before he realized that he’d left Sarah alone. Dammit! he thought.
He ran to the room and barged in. “Sarah?” he called. Something instantly gripped him. She wasn’t there. But she had vomited. He sighed loudly and smacked the bedpost with the full force of his hand. His palm stung sharply. How could he have done this? He’d let his exhaustion cloud his judgement. What kind of self-professed “doctor” was he?
He ran outside and called, “Sarah? Sarah?” No response. The hospital floor was quiet and totally still. The cold freshness of the air made him feel uneasy. He breathed in heavily.
Dr. Murray suddenly had an idea: he sprinted to the floor’s security room, located at the very end of the hallway. In the daytime, a security guard would normally man the station, keeping an eye on the people walking down the busy hallways and its attached rooms.
He logged onto the hospital security network and flipped through camera views. He saw the six patient rooms, the staff rooms, the offices of doctors (including his own), and the wing for mentally ill patients. Everything appeared as it should.
He decided to rewind the videotape for Sarah’s hospital room. He pulled the video back ten minutes, expecting find Sarah leave towards the right side or left side of the hallway. But he saw nothing. No one entered. No one left.
His breathing intensified. Shocks ripped through his spine and shoulders. He stood frozen. What the hell? He ran back to Sarah’s room. Perhaps he hadn’t examined the room closely. Perhaps Sarah was playing a game, hiding under the bed. He barged in. He studied the room’s appearance closely. “Sarah, if you’re in here, you better come out! You’ve been a naughty girl!”
Flap. Flap. Flap. Dr. Murray jerked backwards. He stuck his neck out of the room’s doorway and peered outside – he could see the double-doors of the staircase leading upstairs move. Sarah must be there.
Confused, irate, and anxious, he chased after the girl, pushing through the double-doors. It would make sense that Sarah is upstairs – there was no way she could’ve gone downstairs. She’d need a keycard.
Trying to generate some source of relief with his rationalization, Dr. Murray ran upstairs with all the speed that his cumbersome lab coat and black dress pants afforded him. He ran straight into the lobby of the next floor. He couldn’t find Sarah.
He bent over and panted, trying to catch his breath.
“Doc, you okay?”
Startled, Dr. Murray jumped and saw Lennon, sitting in a chair, his head resting against the hallway wall. Relieved, Dr. Murray came over and sat next to him.
“What’s the issue, Dr. Murray?” Lennon asked, intent on helping.
“The other one – the seventeenth. She’s missing.”
“What? You officially diagnosed her? She’s the seventeenth?” Lennon asked, astonished.
“Things check out. But I can’t find her. I checked the security tape of the floor. She’s not in her room, but she didn’t leave. I don’t get it.”
Skeptical, Lennon asked, “You sure you checked right, Doc? I mean, maybe, but you know those cameras, they don’t always work–”
Lennon paused. Streams of white flooded his cheeks. His eyes widened.
Dr. Murray, who was staring firmly forward, was disrupted by Lennon’s discontinuation of his talking and turned toward his nurse. “What’s the matter?”
Lennon grabbed Dr. Murray’s shoulder and clutched it tightly. “Did you hear that?”
“Maria. It sounded like she was, she was, screaming.”
Lennon jumped up.
“Lennon, relax – where is Maria now?”
“She’s in the extended room with all sixteen. She was supposed to check on the Homptax dosages.” Fear pierced through the young nurse’s voice, like shards of splintered wood rupturing flesh.
“Help!” The word rang out like a bullet, its frightening connotation spilling into the dense, still air of the floor lobby.
“Did you hear that, Doc? Did you hear that?” Lennon demanded excitedly.
“Yeah, yeah, I did. Let’s go.” Dr. Murray was hoping that one of the patients had managed to break free of his leather restraints – but at this point, he couldn’t be sure of anything.
They were about to charge into the extended room with all sixteen patients when they saw a blob of redness stumble out of the doorway. It resembled a human. It was green, the same color as the nurses’ uniforms. The amorphous figure of flesh drifted, as if it was levitating, for a few seconds before splattering on the floor, in the middle of the lobby.
Lennon stood still, his mouth agape, struggling to comprehend what was going on. Dr. Murray observed the blob before reaching a horrifying conclusion: it was Maria.
Her left arm had been lopped off completely. Dr. Murray could see the yellow curvature of a freshly exposed bone. His eyes, unwilling to let go of this disgusting sight, followed her blood-soaked body, reaching her knees – where he discovered both her calves had been removed entirely.
His eyes darted up to Maria’s head, trying to recognize some humanity in the very inhuman sight that presented itself in the lobby. Skin on half her face had been torn off, crushed, crumpled, smushed. He could make out the bones, the skeleton of her head.
She gargled blood that had flowed into her neck. She was drowning. From her own bodily fluids. She struggled. Fidgeted. Against the oppressive grasp of death’s inevitable bodily degradation. She flopped like a fish trying to breath. And then she stopped.
“What the HELL! What the HELL! HELL!” Lennon screamed. He pulled on the hairs of his head, growing mad from shock.
Dr. Murray grabbed Lennon and shoved him against the wall. He had seen some crazy stuff while serving as a medic in the army. He needed to regain his comrade’s senses if they were going to accomplish anything. “Look at me, Lennon. Look at me.”
Lennon whimpered, like a dog getting reprimanded by his owner. “Okay. Okay. Okay.” He said, trying to stifle his tears, sniffling, trying to control himself.
“I need you,” Dr. Murray said calmly and slowly, “to go to the emergency phone and call the police. Tell them – look at me Lennon! – tell them that the hospital at Native Fields has been compromised, and that our patients need to be relocated. Tell them that. Please.”
Dr. Murray let his terrified nurse go. Lennon jumped, like a squirrel, and raced towards the phone. He pulled on it so hard that the phone’s coiled cord nearly ripped from its base. He smashed the digits 911 into the keypad and rammed the phone to his ear. Fear caused him to move with uncontrollable force. He heard an incessant monotone. There was no connection.
“Doc, it’s not working! It’s not working!”
“Whaddya mean?” an exasperated Dr. Murray demanded.
“No connection!” Lennon breathed in heavily. “No connection!”
Dr. Murray thought for a moment. For ten miles, there was no one. No help. The mayor’s quarantine had trapped them.
Suddenly, the doctor heard a roar. Lennon stared at the extended room’s doorway. “D-d-d-doc,” he stammered, “look.” He pointed, his index finger shaking.
Dr. Murray turned his head. A patient, who must have managed to elude his restraints, was stumbling forward. Vomit stained his shirt. His arms were stretched outwards. His knees twitched awkwardly. Teeth fell out of his mouth, one at a time. Blood poured from his nose and eyelids. The patient shrieked loudly.
Lennon jumped back.
“Get a Kosina, Kosina forty milligrams, stat!” Dr. Murray needed to sedate the patient. Lennon darted to the floor’s reception desk, reached over, fiddled for a moment, found the cabinet with basic medical supplies, and grabbed a needle and a small cartridge of drug. He fidgeted for a moment before managing to stick the cartridge in the needle.
Lennon glanced at Dr. Murray, who nodded. Lennon charged at the patient, swinging his right backwards in an attempt to generate enough force to pierce the patient’s rotting, fungal flesh. The patient grabbed Lennon, before he could insert the injection, clutched his throat, and slowly lifted him into the air.
Struggling to breath, the nurse dropped the injection and screeched, “Murray! HELP!”
Dr. Murray, his army instincts overcoming him, charged at the patient, tackling him like a football player. Blood splattered all over his uniform, and he could feel the soft, unstable flesh of the patient beginning to disintegrate. Lennon fell as the patient lost his grasp. The doctor reached for the fallen injection and slammed it straight into the patient’s neck.
Instead of achieving the desired effect, the contents of the needle seemed to exacerbate the uncontrollable rage of the patient. The man’s eyeballs popped out, leaving empty sockets. Dr. Murray, horrified, released his grasp of the patient, who was squirming under the doctor’s weight. Finally, the patient relaxed and grew still.
Unable to understand what had just happened, the doctor looked for his comrade, Lennon. The nurse was lying on the floor, blooding spilling from his neck. Dr. Murray, with aching, shivering muscles, crawled over to his nurse. His mind was polluted with the horrific sights he had just seen. His hospital, once so serene and functional, was descending into flesh-ridden madness.
Lennon stopped moving. Blood drizzled from the man’s eyes. Dr. Murray, soaked in red, stood up, every cell in his body vibrating in fear-induced excitement. Suddenly, the lights began to flicker. He looked up. He was reminded of the reporters’ cameras earlier in the evening. But this time, as the flickering of the lights sped up, the doctor grew increasingly disoriented.
Shielding his eyes, he stumbled forward towards the door. They were locked. He could see the red glare of the “Exit” sign flow through the small windows in the door. He inhaled small, desperate pockets of air. He pushed against the door as hard as he could. They didn’t budge.
Clack. The lights went out. Dr. Murray shivered, as he nervously glanced around. Using the walls as a guide, he made his way slowly towards the reception desk. He climbed over cautiously, his fingers gliding across the cabinets – cluck, his hands found it. He pulled open the drawer and found a flashlight. Immediately, he turned it on and assessed his surroundings.
He could see the blood stains. The mangled, unmoving corpses. His hands, vehemently shaking, made the light dance on the walls, like a concert strobe light.
The intercom cackled as it came to life. “Dr. Murray, it’s time.” The high screech of the voice was familiar – it was an auditory concoction of kindness, a welcome, motherly accent, but mixed in the reverberating leather of the voice was a sinister, almost hostile, intent, like a mother trying to coax her child from a locked room before striking him for disobedience.
“Dr. Murray, it’s time,” the voice repeated. “Dr. Murray, it’s time.”
Repeating sentences. It’s a patient, Dr. Murray noticed. He took two steps forward, trying to make out where the security room was, before he stopped as a calamitous conclusion flowed through his veins and reached his head.
The voice – it was Sarah. “Sarah! Sarah! SARAH!” Dr. Murray shouted, in mad desperation. She had retained her verbal abilities, but she seemed to have descended into disease.
“Dr. Murray,” the voice said, before taking an extending pause. “It’s time.” The voice emphasized the last word, before beginning to laugh.
Thud. Thud. Dr. Murray aimed the beam of his flashlight directly at the doorway of the room with the sixteen – or fifteen, now – remaining patients. He saw movement. Slow, steady movement. He could make out a limb, an arm or a leg, tattered flesh, blood. The amorphous figure stampeded forward like herd animals.
Dr. Murray dropped his flashlight in horror and sprinted toward the end of the hallway, with elevators. As he ran, he glanced behind him, and saw a makeshift light show: as the flashlight was kicked around by the rotting legs of the figures, the light bounced back and forth, illuminating half-decayed heads and waterfalls of melting innards.
The gleam of the moonlight poured through he large window at the end of the hallway. The doctor tried to press the elevator buttons, but it was to no avail – the power was mysteriously cut. He turned around. He saw the deep, red eyes of the beings chasing him. They were closing the distance.
He peered out the window. Three floors. He could conceivably make it. Like an airship untethered to the ground, he lost his sense of reality, his sense of self-preservation, and took a few steps back away from the window.
Like an army soldier in an action movie, he jumped out, crashing through the glass, and falling to the ground. The journey down seemed to take ages. He could feel a sense of unease lift through his pelvis into his stomach up to his neck. The butterflies flew. As the fell, his stomach seemed to float into his neck.
He couldn’t breath. The coldness of the air whipped by him like shards of ice. His torn and stained lab coat flapped, like the wings of a bird. The moon, with stripes of black from silhouettes of black branches, illuminated his fall.
He crashed into a bush. When he collided with the ground, everything rebounded – his stomach, from his neck, felt like it was pushing down into his thighs. The air exited his lungs, which struggled to regain their normal airflow. His eyes took one look at the window. There was no broken glass.
Shocked, his heartbeat reignited, his brain restarted, like the engine of an old car, and his hands awkwardly felt the ground around him, trying to find pieces of cracked glass. Nothing.
“Sir? We have something!” a voice boomed thunderously behind him.
Dr. Murray jerked up and saw a beam of light flood his eyes. Blinded, he instinctively reached his hand to block the light.
“Mr. Mayor, we’re at the hospital site. The distress call was not responded to, as you ordered.”
Dr. Murray struggled against the light.
“Your orders, sir?”
“But, sir, he’s already incapacitated…” the voice trailed off.
“Okay, sir, we’ll do it.”
Dr. Murray’s eyes readjusted in the light. Two men, guns drawn. The rotating red and blue of a cop car. Badges flashing under the radiant streams of light.