This story is by Bishwarupa Kar and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dead of Night
A bead of sweat popped on his forehead. Instantly his right hand rushed to his face and swiped the droplet away before it could reach the tip of his eyebrow. This was no time to panic.
He looked around and blinked. It was the dead of night. The absolute silence was broken only by the dull clicking and buzzing of monitors. But something wasn’t right. They were all around him and yet an unearthly stillness hung over them. Panting, he sat up straight on his bed and reached out to the one next to him. His fingers were only inches away from the rail when the syringe sticking out of the back of his other palm tugged at him.
“Damn it!” He winced and glanced at his IV catheter. Drawing himself back, he looked over his shoulder and leaned sideways as far as possible.
“Gary,” he whispered, “Gary, can you hear me?”
No reply came.
“Gary!” he hissed louder, “Look at me!”
His heart began to pump faster now. He looked around frantically, trying to make out the rows of beds arrayed beyond Gary’s. Not a single movement in any of them. He could see the people, tucked under blankets, their bodies silhouetted against the faint glow of dim red and green lights emanating from monitors above their heads. And yet, not one movement.
Suddenly, a terrifying thought struck him. He pulled out a pocket flashlight from under his pillow and pointed it towards the room. The small pool of light landed on his neighbour’s face and the blood froze in his hand.
Where his friend should have been, sleeping blissfully without the pained expression of illness, was instead a white bedsheet covering a lifeless body.
“Gary!” he screamed into the night and dropped the flashlight.
Sean’s eyes flew open.
For a split second he stared at the dark ceiling and then it all rushed back to him. He swung madly to his side, fumbling for the flashlight on the floor. But there was none. Confused, Sean glanced to his side. He held his breath, squinting, and stared at the adjacent bed.
And then it dawned on him. There was no clicking, or beeping, no rhythmic mechanical buzzes or flashes of green lights on screens. He looked at his left hand – sure, there was an IV catheter, but it was positioned differently; at least it felt different. Sean lay back on his pillow and breathed heavily.
“Ok, calm down,” he reassured himself, “it’s all fine.” He pulled the covers over his shoulder and looked at his side.
“Gary, I’m ok,” Sean muttered sleepily. “It was that bloody nightmare again.”
The ceiling gradually disappeared and as the fear began to loosen away from his muscles, the tiny pangs of pain in his abdomen returned, making him wince. But the makeshift general ward had managed to afford painkillers thrice twice a day so it wasn’t long before his senses numbed and a light drowse set it, sucking him into the unconscious.
It was blissful for a few moments but then he heard a deep grinding sound coming from somewhere close by as though a giant pair of wheels were rolling alongside him. He tossed uncomfortably, trying to shut out the disturbance. The grinding kept going, and then he felt his bed move underneath him. Irritated, he opened his eyes and that’s when he realized that the wheels weren’t actually beside him but under his own bed. The masked faces of two nurses focused slowly into sight peering down at him, against the daylight that blinded his corneas. He made to get up, but one of the nurses held him down gently.
Muffled voices spoke as though in his own brain, “Mr. Davis, we’re almost there, please lie down.”
He lay back and craned his neck to look ahead but a searing pain shot up his shoulders and brought tears to his eyes. Then as though a hundred needles were piercing through his abdomen, an excruciating stinging spread its way up his body. He squirmed and tried to get up once again.
“Mr. Davis,” repeated the nurse’s voice, this time clearer. “I know, it hurts, Mr. Davis, I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do,” and she pushed him back on the stretcher.
Now the stinging had reached his throat, but mustering all the strength he could, he managed to formulate his question.
“Where are you taking me?” he croaked.
“To a new general ward, Mr. Davis, we can’t keep you in the ICU anymore. The disease has spread beyond our control. We’re sorry. We have to make room for curable patients.”
He gulped painfully. “Where – where is my friend? You taking Gary too?”
There was a pause. “We’re sorry, Mr. Davis. Mr. Smith is no more.” And the stretcher bumped against Ward 14’s entrance.
Sean’s eyes flew open. Again.
Sweat trickled down his hairline. He looked up. The rocking had stopped, the nurses had disappeared, the stinging in his abdomen was minimal; he blinked in the darkness. And then his memory returned. Sean started, the blood pounding in his ears. Leaping up straight, he threw a look at the room. Everyone was in their beds, just the way they were two days back when he and Gary were shifted into this new ward at the far end of the hospital. Gary had told him he knew they would do this. Gary was always right. Gary!
Sean wheeled around and faced his friend’s bed. The nurses had said –
“Oh thank god, Gary…” exhaled Sean. Relief washed over him, as he made out the faint outline of his friend a couple of meters away.
“I know you’re not registering this Gary, but I don’t think I had two nightmares back to back ever before,” Sean laughed softly, picturing his friend’s bored expression when he recounted his nightmares to him every morning.
“Anyway… Goodnight again.”
Sean fell back on his pillow, this time determined to force happier thoughts in his mind.
He lay awake for quite a while, staring at the dark ceiling. It was actually better off here than in the ICU, Sean recalled. No more mechanical sounds in the background, no nurses rushing back and forth, let alone fuss over him: they barely came once a day to check on them. And best of all, no injections or soreness in the crook of his elbows! There was that IV catheter of course, positioned only too familiarly but that was bearable, wasn’t it? As long as they gave him those painkillers, he didn’t really care much about anything else – it made him feel normal. Sometimes he even forgot how ill everybody actually was in this ward. It was a hopeless case, but no one discussed it, and it was better that way.
Smiling to himself, Sean drifted off to sleep.
It felt like hours before the sound of urgent voices woke him up. He felt a hand near his face and a man’s voice next to him saying, “We have him.” Sean opened his eyes.
Against the glow of dawn, he could see many people moving around the room. Nurses, doctors and other men dressed in ways he hadn’t seen before.
Sean checked his IV catheter; it was the only thing that helped him figure out where he was. Sure, this was real now, he could understand by its position. Then a doctor came to his side and tapped on the bed near his ear.
“Mr. Davis, can you hear me?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied Sean, groggily, “What’s going on?” He sat up and looked around him.
Then something odd struck him.
“Doctor?” he asked, “Where are you taking them?” He could faintly see his ward mates being shifted onto stretchers.
Then three male nurses came over to Gary’s bedside and began to lower the rails.
“But why him, Doctor?” Sean asked urgently. He turned, “Gary, did they tell you where they’re shifting us again?”
“Mr. Davis,” said the Doctor, “He can’t hear you –”
“Ya I know, I was speaking to him earlier in the night. But now –”
“Mr. Davis,” repeated the Doctor gently, “It’s been more than a few hours already: they all died in the night.”