Sunday, February 6, 2011

WIP - Salamander

I work nights at the hospital. Everyone knows that I'm the person who walks around turning off all the lights and televisions at 11 o'clock. I tell them that it's because I hate the noise and want my patients to go to sleep, but really, it's because it makes it hard for me to hear the voices.Yeah, do you believe in ghosts? They're everywhere, but especially in hospitals. They're not all dead people, either - some are, but a lot of them are just leftover energy from temporary inhabitants. I don't know for sure, but I think when you go through a lot of stress, your soul expands or something. Leaves a kind of psychic splatter behind, and some of us can feel it. I'm one of the lucky ones.Most people's mess feels like a whisper - and most people whisper to God when they're in pain, or their loved ones, and it's kind of nice to hear. Faith and love, mostly. But there are true ghosts lingering around, and their messages are more complex. They usually talk about the past, but boy, once in awhile they're like a live party line to the future - that's why I turn off the TVs and shut down the lights. Living people crowd them out and shut them down, so I keep it dark and quiet. I need the info.One of my ghosts was actually a patient of mine. He was mostly dead when we called the code, and then I got to feel his soul leave his body for good when I cracked his ribs doing CPR. No one should be hospitalized without a living will - I'd have left for good too, if someone was running a code on me. Anyway, John seems to be attached to me and sticks around. He's a nice guy, but maddeningly quiet - not the best company on a slow night, but sweet. He knows I have work to do, so usually, he just hums around behind me when he's lonely. I like to eat my lunch in the empty break room, and show him what I'm having for dinner. He also likes it when I let him read trashy magazines over my shoulder - I leave them lying open on my workstation and flip the pages when I walk by, so he can check out the latest celebrity hairstyles and plunging necklines. Sometimes the other ghosts crowd in too, but mostly it's me and John.Tonight, though, was different. John was agitated, and the other energy blobs were humming like firehoses. I saw flickers in my peripheral vision as I walked down to the ortho unit at 11 p.m., the ghostly equivalent of waving arms and shouting in my face. Something - some one - was loose.
* * *
I was resourcing, so when I got the call to come to the ER, stat, I practically ran down the empty hallway that takes you the back way to the emergency room. I had my hand on the electronic opener, waiting for the gizmo to open up the double doors, when I saw John's characteristic blue flicker in my peripheral vision. Then a whisper in my head - "Wait!"
I paused in front of the scanner, where it would stop the doors from beat, two beat, three beat...then wham! Something thumped into the other side, making me jump. I saw some dark liquid start to trickle through under the rubber pad....eww.
"Thanks, John!" I muttered, and then moved to let the doors open. Coke can? Sniffed. Nope - Coke can full of chew spit. I hopped over the puddle, grateful for the divinatory powers of the undead.
Inside the ER was total chaos. At least fifty people were crowded in there, all screaming their heads off, and in their midst were doctors, nurses and aides weaving around, tossing supplies over heads, and in the crisis room, I saw three gurneys with active CPR teams and a lot of blood on the floor. Sweet Jesus - I love my job!
Janey, the ER charge nurse, was right in front of me, barring five or six agitated people. I snaked my way over, restraining myself from throwing elbows, until I was right under her nose. Moved in front of the fat woman yelling at her until I got her attention.
"J, what do you need?"
She paused, stuck a finger out to temporarily shush the fat woman, then said "Room 3."
"On it!" I snaked away, heading for one of the crisis rooms. Felt John at my back, reminding me to take a deep breath. I let the sound fade away and really tried to pay attention as I slipped through the crowd.
Room three was a code in progress. I had to elbow through the semicircle of bickering people until I got close enough to grab some gloves and see the bedside. Huang was bagging the limp body while Catey was doing compressions, her blond ponytail bobbing up and down while she watched the EKG. Blood and NS were being run full-bore. I could see pale skin and massive bruising around a small chest and abdomen - not good. I stood up next to Catey and said "Spell ya." She grunted and moved aside, I jumped in and started pushing on the vic's chest - a girl. A young girl. Her eyes were dilated and blank, even as the EKG kept beeping, beeping, beeping. I exhaled and looked away without stopping compressions, then got back to staring at the heart monitor and counting under my breath. The roar of the ER faded into the background, and then, suddenly, it stopped completely.
For two heartbeats, all I could hear were machines beeping. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a massive dark shadow pass across the wall, and the beginning of several simultaneous screams. Time slowed down, and as I threw myself across the dead girl's chest, I heard Huang say "Jesus fucking christ!" Something hurtled over my head and crashed into the wall, and then the lights went out. More screaming ensued. Emergency lights started to flicker into being. I felt a snarl curling my lips and did everything I could to sound normal as I said "Catey! I have to go - get the compressions!" The code team, supremely focused, started beeping their indiglo wrist-watches and resuming their synchronized effort to revive the dead, even as they stepped around pieces of the shattered code cart. Damn.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hoped the doc would call it soon and let the poor girl go. John had disappeared, so I presumed he was doing his ambassador-to-the-next-world thing, like the nice ghost he was. But in the front of my mind, I was smelling evil, and it made me furious.
The screaming was loudest at the back of the ER, just past the maze of curtained exam rooms and at the head of the hallway that led to the operating rooms and MRI. Holy shit - people were streaming around the circular triage station, absolutely fighting each other to make it to the exit. How did so many people get in here in the first place? The two security guards were helpless in the face of it - instead of creating order, they were just shoving bodies towards the door, everyone looking like something out of a zombie movie in the red glow of the emergency lights.
Then I looked at the back of the room, and sucked my breath in in horror. There was nothing there. At least, nothing that would cast a shadow like that. Huge, warped, twisted, it wrapped the entire back wall in grotesque darkness - the kind of thing that you imagine coming into your room as a kid, when headlights briefly illuminate the tree outside your window. I felt fear shiver down my back, then a surge of adrenaline - god, I hate evil! The snarl came back to my lips. Whatever it was, I was going to kill it.
Just then, I smelled stale cigarette smoke as a fat woman jostled by me. Without even thinking, I threw my shoulder into her, and then tried not to laugh with triumph as she fell down, spilling her purse. Something glinted on the floor as she scrambled to her feet, shrieking obscenities and scrabbling for her things even as she continued to try to rush for the door. I swooped down and nabbed the lighter and sprinted in the opposite direction. I could feel the air I ran. Closer to the shadow, I felt my heart pounding. Every second felt like an eternity of crystal-sharp clarity as I moved in slow motion. The shadow was leaning towards me - oh my god. So close. I leapt at the corner of the wall it was inhabiting, swatting at the oxygen tree, felt the tree break off in the socket as pure oxygen came shooting out of the wall.
Then I held up the lighter. It felt like someone grabbed my heart and squeezed, just before I flicked it into life. I was laughing when the flames burst around me - for a second, my heart stopped completely, and then, as the fireball blasted the shadow into oblivion, it raced back to life. It was like being kicked in the chest - I staggered, falling onto my side, before jumping up again and racing for the oxygen cutoff in the hallway. I felt great. It took all my self-control to remember to simply open the glass door to the cutoff switch instead of wrenching it off it's hinges. Laughing, I threw the lever, and saw the incredibly yellow glare die off into some dull flickering. I ran to the next glass door in the hallway and grabbed the fire extinguisher, then ran back to sweep the end of the hallway with it and extinguish the smoldering boxes of exam gloves and assorted equipment that the fire had ignited.
Damn, I love fire - it's so hard to watch it die. Nevertheless, I couldn't just burn the hospital down. Ah, well. Just as I was getting it all out, the sprinklers came on and the fire alarms started to shriek. Janey got her stage voice on and yelled "Evacuate everyone to the OR! Critical teams first! Non-critical people go up to the medical floor! C'mon, everyone, let's go!"
By this time, I knew the danger was over. Whatever was making that chaos had disappeared, along with the crazy crowd of spectators. I saw the ER crew packing up the three critical patients, and escorting the non-critical ones towards the elevators. Water was running everywhere....of course, running water breaks spells, just like daybreak. Oh, man. I shook my head, trying to clear the adrenaline, then decided to help escort the non-critical folks upstairs. "Janey, I'm doing crowd control - I'll be upstairs!" I shouted at her as I race-walked by. Incredibly, I could already hear the fire department sirens shrieking in the distance - station number three, my old pals. Dang, those guys were fast! They were going to love seeing me sopping wet and herding patients around - this was going to call for some beer later, and a whopping good bar story. Heh.
Well, forget about having a quiet night. I sighed and started herding ambulatory folks towards the stairwell.

Chapter Two

It was still dark outside when I finally clocked out and walked out of the hospital. My skin felt raw, and not just from the cold. Buzzing. Even my hair felt like it was standing on end. I don't get tired easily, but today I wished I wasn't in the habit of walking to work - still, getting outside after a night like that felt good. Clean. God, I didn't think the paperwork was ever going to end! And try explaining how you managed to survive an explosion - at least no normal person had been able to see through the glare. I'd claimed that the woman I'd tackled had a lit cigarette in her hand - since she'd disappeared and the security cameras had gone down when the electricity went out, no one had been able to dispute it. And of course, I'd been blown off my feet by the explosion, so naturally, I'd survived it by rolling on the floor - naturally. It felt ludicrously funny to get lauded as a hero for grabbing the fire extinguisher, too. At least my old fire buddies were able to make me laugh - we had a date to meet for beer on Wednesday.
Without thinking about it, my feet found their own way to the paved path along the river, through downtown, and finally, down the old-fashioned alleyway that led to my little house just outside of the neighborhood around the college. There were deer tracks in the icy slush along the edges of the alley - this close to the river, you could see almost every kind of wildlife, even here in town. I liked that. When I finally looked up, I was at my front door, but I wasn't ready to stop walking and thinking. I walked in just long enough to grab Amos' leash and let him lick my face, then walked back out into the grey morning fog with him frolicking alongside. A Husky is always good company, especially on cold morning walk, and I found myself giggling as he repeatedly tried to tempt me into romping with him - he had the moves. When we got back to the park, I let him run after the geese like a bat out of hell for a few bad minutes before dutifully leashing him up again. He liked that, and finally settled down into his usual jaunty walk. I found myself prowling along the river again, and then eventually, as the overcast day continued to lighten, walking the sidewalks that led to the meatpacking district.
All the best bars were here - it was the gritty part of town. Still, even for this neighborhood, there was way too much evidence of a wild night lying around - some police tape, a few black-and-whites with their lights flashing parked in one alley, scattered items of clothing and empty beverage containers lying around - what the hell happened? Why did everyone go nuts last night? Amos sniffed everything in wild abandon, tugging on his leash, and I only pretended to contain him as I slowly found my way to a green-painted door in a back alley. Sure enough, it was open a crack. I smelled bacon.
With a grin, I pushed it open further and drifted in, leading Moose along a long narrow hallway until it opened out onto Pengilly's bar. Jake Pengilly was sitting there on a barstool, leaning on his elbows over a steaming mug of coffee and the Sunday paper. I stood there watching him for a moment, just enjoying the tableau. Handsome man, battered old room, absolutely gleaming bar front, no one around but us chickens. And a plate of bacon. Still grinning, I leaned down just enough to let Amos off his leash, and sure enough, he practically teleported towards J. It was gratifying to first see Jake's confusion at being swarmed by a one-dog mob, then to see him look up and see me. Oh, be still, my heart! How long had it been?
"Magda!" His gravelly baritone carried across the room without him needing to raise his voice. "When did you get a dog?"
Guess that was how long it had been, then.
I couldn't take it anymore - I ran across the room after Amos, only pulling up short when I was an arm's length away. Jake slid off the stool and opened his arms, eyes crinkling at the corners as he looked down at me - god, I love tall men! He was the perfect bartender - just big enough to reach the top shelf, and just imposing enough to keep the lip from patrons to a minimum. I slid into the invitation, wrapping my arms around his waist as tightly as I could. He pulled my shoulders in until my face was pressed tightly into his chest, and we stood there for a long minute, both sighing happily. When his hands started moving up the back of my neck, lifting up my hair and just barely tilting my head back, I gently pushed away. Jake dropped his hands and looked up into space - I saw him clench his fists into a ball for just second before he looked back at me, at which point I made sure that I was scooting my butt onto a barstool and studiously avoiding his gaze.
Jake sighed slightly, then seated himself back in front of coffee next to me. "So, Mags, what brings you here? Besides the pleasure of my company?" He leaned down to ruffle Amos, who was hovering next to him in quivering hope of bacon. "And who's this guy, anyway?"
I grinned at him. "That's Amos. He's more pig than dog, so don't give him any bacon - it'd be cannibalism." Jake laughed, still chucking at Amos' head as he took a sip of coffee, still giving me that sideways glance.
"And why come here, besides the pleasure of your company? Well, Jakey-boy- maybe I needed a drink."
"Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, where are my manners?!" Jake jumped off his stool and slid behind the counter, reaching with the force of long habit for a mug with one hand while the other groped for the coffee pot. Then as he filled the mug, he was reaching for two bottles - I smiled. Brandy and Everclear. Jake splashed a little cream and brandy in the mug, swizzled it, put a dash of cinnamon in, and then topped it off with the Everclear and a wicked grin. I watched his long arms while he accomplished all this - it took mere seconds.
"You're so good to me, Pengilly!" I murmured.
"If I was really good, Szellem, I'd have sugared the rim for you." He flourished a lighter over the mug and sent flames shooting a foot into the air while I involuntarily clapped in delight. Yay! As the flames died down to a blue flicker, Jake pushed it towards me. He fixed me with a "dare-ya" gaze, and I met it with my own. Without looking down, I leaned forward and sucked in the fire. Unable to help myself, I shuddered a little as the coffee cup suddenly turned ice cold and shattered on the bar top.
Too much.
Jake swallowed hard for second, still staring into my eyes, then shook himself and reached for a rag to push the sluggishly-pooling icy coffee slush into the slop rail, picking out pieces of broken ceramic as he did so.
"Jake, I'm sorry!" He avoided my gaze - then I saw myself in the bar mirror, and I could see why. For the first time in ages, my hands felt warm...and my face, and eyes, which were suddenly glowing molten-red, and giving off a glow like the open door of a woodstove. I looked away from my reflection, and shuddered again - I felt great. Invincible great. And Jake....grinning like a demon, I leaned across the bar, spreading that forest-fire glow across it's gleaming black surface. I caught his free hand and pulled it up to my throat, holding it there until his fingers curved around my neck. They were so warm...I wanted to purr. "Did you miss me?" I whispered, letting him feel the words more than hear them. "Why would you do that, if you didn't miss me?"
His fingers tightened involuntarily, just a little bit. I leaned into his hand, seeing my reflection in his impossibly blue eyes. Then he let go and turned his back on me.
I hissed and leaned back, disappointed.
"Maybe you didn't miss me that much, then?" I said, as lightly as I could, but a tiny sibilant hiss accompanied it, barely audible.
Jake turned back around and leaned his fists on the bar top in front of me, staring down at me. His eyes were red and puffy around the edges, and he closed them tightly when I stared back, turning his head slightly. Suddenly, I felt ashamed. I snapped my inner lids closed and abruptly shut off the fire. It felt like I shrank when I did it, and suddenly my hands felt cold again.
"I'm sorry." I whispered. Jake sighed and turned his chin into his shoulder, staring out the big front window of his bar, then looked back at me. Grabbed a rag and started wiping at the bar again. "S'okay, Magda. I shouldn't have done that. Yes, I missed you. You have no idea." He fell silent. I waited. Finally he put the rag down and looked at me expectantly, a little exasperated.
"Magda, I love you, sweetheart, but...why are you here?"
"Jake, what happened last night? What did you see? At the hospital, it was like everyone went crazy at once! Something's going on. You see everything that happens down here - tell me what you saw."