This story is by Michael Alden and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I worry about Emily. She’s still not used to the change in my schedule. Not to mention, finding her a reliable sitter for the late hours is next to impossible. But we make do.
“Are you taking me to school tomorrow, Mommy?” She asks, when I tuck her in after cartoons. I always know that my shift will probably go long, but I never have the heart to tell her.
“I’ll try my best sweetie, I promise.”
The hospital parking lots are less crowded than during the day, which is a nice change. Third shift might mean everyone else is asleep, but for us, its peak time. Tonight seems different though, quieter than I’ve seen it. I’m shocked that there’s only one new ICU admittance on our hall, brought in yesterday morning. Male, 53, Galloway. Car accident I’m told, severe head trauma, but stable. The attending physician says he’ll pull through, which is good to hear. We may be short on patients tonight, but there are cops all over the place – posted in the hallways and waiting rooms. I think some may even be Feds, but I’m not sure.
“What’s with all the uniforms?” I ask the desk nurse.
She gives me a look, like she knows something interesting. I lean in, hoping she’ll share.
“Head trauma, Room 317. Galloway,” she says with a raised eyebrow. “He’s witness protection.”
I recoil in surprise.
“The SUV was rammed in the middle of an intersection. Hit and run. Galloway got lucky, he should be okay once the swelling goes down. But the cop that was driving didn’t make it, they lost him in the ambulance heading over.”
Now it makes sense why there are so many cops here, since they had lost one of their own.
Sticking to my normal routine, I make my rounds, distributing medications and emptying bed pans. The first few hours always seems to fly by.
“I’m in serious need of some caffeine,” I tell the desk nurse. “You want anything?”
She declines, and I head for the coffee shop on the ground floor. I can smell the freshly ground beans as soon as I get off the elevator. The shop is empty, except for one lone guy in the corner reading a newspaper. I was never much of a coffee person before my schedule changed. Now, it’s a necessity. Those first few weeks were difficult, sometimes I’d only get a few hours before my alarm clock would go off. I’ve made sure to always be up before Emily gets off the bus. She’s always so excited to see me after her day at school. This afternoon she brought home something from art class – a picture of a cat made from purple macaroni glued to a sheet of construction paper. “I named him Cat-A-Roni,” she’d said proudly.
I order a tall with an extra shot and make my way to the side counter that holds the creamer and sugar. I stir the steamy cup, and I sense someone walk over. The man I’d seen earlier sets his folded newspaper on the counter next to me, as he adds sugar to his fresh cup.
“Shift assignments are surprisingly easy to come by,” the man says in a low tone. “And staff records too.”
I turn, “What?”
He unfolds the newspaper and slides it across the counter, directly in front of me. A photo is nestled in the crease.
I stop stirring.
My eyes dart across the photo. There’s Emily, stepping off the school bus with Cat-A-Roni in hand. I’m standing in the driveway waiting for her, in the blue cardigan from this afternoon. I feel my pulse swell up into my throat, with a sudden urge to be sick. I swallow hard. The man scoots closer to me, but I can’t move.
“You need to do exactly what I say and she won’t be harmed. Do you understand?”
Shaking, I manage a slight nod.
“The man in 317. Galloway. He won’t be leaving this hospital alive,” the man says. “The cops have blocked off your wing. So it has to be someone inside.”
I look up at him in disbelief. He stares back at me with cold eyes.
My throat is dry and I try to speak. “You want me to –?” I start to ask, but I can’t finish the question, because I already know the answer.
“I don’t care how you do it,” he said calmly. “Just get it done. Tonight.”
I emerge from the third floor bathroom, wiping the corners of my mouth with a wet paper towel.
“Jesus, you okay?” The desk nurse asks. “You’re pale as a sheet.”
I muster a nod as I pass. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I lie to her. “Bad sushi, I think.”
I can feel the eyes of every cop on the floor, drilling into me. I think about telling them everything. They’d protect Emily, right? But then I think about the photo. There’s probably someone there right now, outside the house, waiting for the call. The cops wouldn’t be able to move fast enough. As soon as I say something, the newspaper man will know. They’ll go after her. I can’t take that risk. It’s my job to keep her safe. I have to protect her. No matter what.
In the nurse’s station, I print out the patient list for my next round and fasten it to a clipboard. I read the name, a dozen lines from the top – Galloway. Before leaving, I pocket a pair of gloves and a disposable syringe.
But I’m no killer. And the cops aren’t stupid, they’d figure it out eventually. What would happen to Emily? Even if she was safe, I’d still lose her forever. A mom in prison – a murderer? She’d never be the same. I feel tears well up, but I try to breathe through it.
As I approach 317, my heart races. Two cops stand posted outside the door.
“Wellness check,” I say to one of them, as I hand over my clipboard. He inspects the list and hands it back to me. I try not to make too much eye contact. They both step aside and I quickly go for the door handle.
The monitors beep rhythmically as I enter the room. They sound faint, and distant. I approach the bed and find a man with a breathing tube and a head wrapped in gauze. His chest softly rises and falls with each breath of the ventilator. I look at him for a few moments, inhaling deeply, trying to calm my nerves. I retrieve the gloves from my pocket and pull them onto shaking hands. I check his pulse, which is steady. The disposable syringe is next and I struggle to remove the wrapper. My fingers fumble as I try to stuff the plastic into my left pocket. I retract the syringe handle, filling the cylinder with air. I can barely grip the thing.
I hesitate, staring at the face shrouded in gauze. A tear rolls down my cheek and falls.
“You doesn’t deserve this,” I whisper, forcing myself to breathe. “But neither does Emily. Please forgive me.”
The needle easily pierces the soft rubber of the IV tube. I depress the plunger, pushing the volume of air into the line. I cap the syringe and return it to my right pocket. A wave of dizziness washes over me, and I stagger, propping myself up on the bed rail. I realize I’m going to be sick again. The room swims around me as I quickly turn and leave through the door, passing by the cops without a word.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” The desk nurse asks, as I once again exit the bathroom.
Before I can reply, the alarm sounds.
A flood of nurses and cops take off down the hall toward 317. I follow behind at a distance, still weak and dizzy.
“He’s having a stroke,” I hear someone shout. The attending physician pushes his way through the mass of people crowding the door. I just stand there, watching the scene unfold. When the doctor emerges, his head hangs low. He addresses the cops that are waiting outside the door. I dig into my right pocket and feel the syringe. Then the left, but its empty. My heart drops into my stomach.
A few moments later, one of the nurses comes out from 317 with something in her hand. She gets the attention of the doctor, showing him the plastic syringe wrapper. They all take notice and gather around, exchanging a flurry of words. The cop that checked my clipboard turns and points in my direction.
My thoughts go back to Emily. I wish I was there, tucking her in after cartoons. I collapse to my knees, as the cops draw their weapons. Their shouts, a muffled roar.
“Are you taking me to school tomorrow, Mommy?” She’d ask.
I’m numb as I feel the cold metal ratchet around my wrists.
“I’ll try my best sweetie, I promise.”