This story is by Tsega Kelile and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The church bell rang out, I can hear the horse bringing the buggy around the corner. Looking out of my front window, the minister driving the hearse cried out, “All ye, bring your dead, may they rest in peace”. This has become the central role for a clergyman – to bury the dead. Sometimes a mother’s shriek will pierce through the silence as she is parted from her child for the last time. Many would heed the cry of the minister as their loved ones succumbed to a wave of disease some doctors called influenza, but it is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. Some say it is the black death from old times, but many doctors are still unsure what this disease is.
Only one person stood on the street – Lucy Belle. She is waiting for me in her Red Cross uniform, like most mornings, since this wave of death swept through. Her crimson cross patch stood out as the only color against the backdrop of eerie gloom and a steel sky. Most people never came out of their homes. Schools and local businesses, for the most part, remained closed indefinitely. On our way to St. Peter’s hospital, we walk by boarded-up windows and frost-bitten lamps.
“Dr. Hart said half of the patients died during the night. He expects more patients will fill the hospital today,” she said. “We are required to take the women’s ward today”.
“I’ve never seen so many taken so ill by the flu,” I said.
“I don’t know if this is the flu. It seems strange to me; this must be something else” she said.
“But what else could it be? They say it is not the plague, but it kills on the same day a person is sick,” I responded.
On the day before, our work consisted of carrying the dead from the beds to the hearse to make room for more incoming patients. Today, we care for those who are fighting to live, many of them are young. I looked over at Lucy and her eyes appeared sunken and a bit dark.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. I’m just a little worn out from yesterday,” she replied.
In St. Peter’s hospital, there is an open hall covered with patient beds and temporary curtains as well as through every hallway. My assignment is on the far right. Lucy’s assignment is along the left side of the hall. She sighed heavily as she looked at her papers.
I took my assignment to the side table and gathered my supplies for my first patient. A loud CLANG came from behind me and then a THUD. Noise is common in a hospital but this is unusual. The murmuring among the staff grew loud and as I looked on, I could see a woman in uniform being carried to a bed.
Dr. Hart called out to me.
“It’s Lucy!” he shouted.
I ran over to her bedside, she was pale and clammy.
“It’s going to be okay Lucy,” I said quietly to her. I think she heard me.
She was in and out. When I touch her forehead, she is feverish and at times delirious.
I have seen countless patients I never knew, but it feels so different when it happens to someone close.
“Inez!” Lucy cried out.
“I’m here Lucy,” I said, “How are you feeling”?
“My head…” she said bringing her head to her forehead.
I brought a new water basin and towel to cool down her temperature. Dr. Hart looked from a far off but said nothing.
“Inez,” Lucy said, “I was talking, I think to an angel”.
“Why do you say that?” I responded.
“I was asking him why me?” she said.
“Why do you ask that”?
“Because, I am supposed to be helping, but I just can’t,” she said.
“Lucy, you’ve done everything for so many people. Everyone has their turn, to help and receive help,” I said.
She nodded and smiled. Then she fell asleep.
I took a deep breath, realizing that her wheezing is getting worse and her skin became grey. I never thought to lose a friend in this fight. I always imagined we would be working side by side.
“Inez!” Lucy suddenly called.
“Yes, I’m here Lucy,” I said.
“How do I look?” She asked.
I just laughed a little.
“Are you worried about your looks”?
Lucy smiled, “I just want to know if I look like a ghost”.
“Inez, I want to reach out to my parents. I’m scared I don’t have much time,” she said sadly.
“Don’t worry about your parents. Lucy, you need to fight, don’t give up,” I said.
“How?” she said.
“This fight is in your mind and your will, tell the angel ‘it is not yet time’ to take you away. You have more life to live.”
Lucy cried. She must have felt what I felt – hopeless. But I am not facing imminent death, she is. I wasn’t wrong to tell her to fight. Many give up because they are scared. I didn’t want to see her scared. Lucy must fight for her freedom even from death.
The real test comes during the night. If she can get through the night, she may survive.
The church bell rang out again. The evening was setting in and the agony of the day was giving way to the pain of the night. All we need to do is get through till dawn and we will be on our way. I looked out of the window, but there was no hearse and there was no one out on the street. Everyone shut their doors and didn’t come out. No one knew where or how they might get sick so they stayed home.
Lucy tried to sit up as she coughed and strained to get air. Dr. Hart and I came to her bedside to help her sit up and breathe. After a few moments, she collapsed down again – spent from coughing.
Dr. Hart came beside me to speak with me.
“I don’t think she has much time,” he said, “look”.
The towel he used to clean her mouth was stained with blood.
“This is a sign that hemorrhage will follow and she likely will not survive” he explained.
I could feel tears welling up in my eyes, but I tried to remain stoic. I am a nurse and a friend. I have to face reality, that nothing more can be done.
“Lucy, Lucy” I called.
She was perspiring and exhausted but she looked up at me.
“My chest hurts,” she said in agony.
“You can do this, you are brave” I started, her eyes teared up.
“Don’t quit now, I know you can get through this”. She simply nodded her head and closed her eyes.
Dr. Hart came by to check on her; by now it is midnight.
“Doctor, could you reach out to her parents, I believe they should be notified,” I said.
“I already sent a message to them, hopefully, they receive it. However, I did not recommend they come. It is too dangerous”.
He checked her temperature and then moved on to his other patients.
I moved from my chair to the floor beside Lucy’s bed. It was all I could do to keep hope alive.
I breathed deep, “please don’t take her away, there is so much for her in this life. It is too soon,” I prayed. I laid my head down and sleep overcame me. In my sleep, I saw a strange dream. Lucy and I walked to a gate standing in an open field. Its keeper, like an angel, stood in front of it. The gatekeeper put out his hand towards us, I perceived he wanted us to stop. We went no further and returned the way we came. I immediately woke from sleep.
I looked up and saw my dear friend awake and more alert than before. Still delirious from my dream, Lucy said to me, “I heard your prayer and I think it was answered”. I smiled.
“It is worth it to fight with everything we have, even our prayers,” I said.
I squinted looking over at the window as the light poured in the room. We made it through the night.
“See Lucy, it is morning. The night is over.”
Anita Merriman says
Wow Tsega. Heavy and yet so beautifully told! It seems to be a story of faith on it’s feet. Thank you for this story. Your ending is beautiful, satisfying.