A dim light made the yellow ceiling glow even more, lighting up the dull grey cobwebs that hung from the wooden beams like rigging. Rows of bunk beds lined both sides of the room. Occasionally, an arm would flail over a bedpost as a sleeping patient stirred. Sounds of snoring thrummed soothingly, softly and harshly, quietly and loudly, innocent and obnoxious at once, from all corners of the ward. Here and there is a doctor with a nurse in tow, wearing white coats that shine yellow in the light, giving them the appearance of angels. They reach out a tender hand to pull down a nightshirt where it has been hiked up, flicking away the bed bugs and lice that assail the poor, sleeping unfortunates.
Off on the side, there is a young one in the throes of a nightmare. Tears stream down his face, and he’s whispering “No!” over and over with feverish intensity. But his eyes remain closed; he is still asleep. One nurse is holding his hand, rocking him gently and making shushing noises. After a while, her efforts bear fruit. The patient breathes deeply and sniffles, but he has triumphed over Evil. Wet streaks glisten on his face like a forgotten river.
Another patient lies awake. His head is turned to the side, feigning sleep. He’s biting on his blanket, stifling his laughter to avoid the notice of Doctor. Better would be if he wouldn’t laugh. But his plight is so humorous, the situation in this room so laughable, that he can’t help it. He can see the yellow insulation that lines the ceiling catch fire suddenly and burst into flame. When he closes his eyes and reopens them, the ceiling is at it was, but he can smell the lingering ash. He can see Doctor, shrinking to the size of a scorpion and being stepped on by Nurse, till his white coat turns red and greasy as his organs mash together. A second later the vision fades, but this patient can still hear the satisfying crunch of Doctor’s bones snapping. A nurse catches the gleam off his open eye and hurry toward him with a glass of water and a needle. He catches sight of her and his eyes widen. She has grown another head, with snot dripping from both noses. He bursts out laughing, unable to contain himself. The nurse hurries to administer the shot – other patients are shifting uneasily in their sleep. It takes a second to find the vein, but this nurse has done this before. A few seconds later, his eyes roll up to the back of his head until his eyes only show the whites, or what was once white. Years of treatment has left his eyes red and bloodshot.
The nurse breathes a sigh, and notices that she is no longer holding the cup of water. She looks around. In her haste, she had dropped it. The glass has shattered and the water is splattered around it like an egg. It’s sizzling. No, she tells herself, that’s not right. Cool water doesn’t sizzle like a frying egg. But she can’t shake the vision, she knows that somehow, higher than logic, the egg will burn if she doesn’t set it on a plate and bring it to Momma with tea. She hears that high-pitched voice in her ear, as clear and cold as yesterday, “Matilda, you’ll fetch some breakfast for your poor sick mother, won’t you dear.” And she would, of course. It was her duty as a daughter to care for her mother. To make her better…
But now the doctor has been alerted to the grating noise of a needle scratching at the concrete floor, for it seems that one of the nurses is trying in vain to pry water off it for some reason. He motions to another nurse and together they softly approach her. “Matilda,” he whispers tentatively, hoping that’s her name. He’s speaking quietly so as not to wake the patients, but he is on guard. “What are you doing?” She whips her head back to look at him, and her eyes are fierce as a cornered animal’s. “It’s for Momma’s breakfast. She’s ill,” Matilda adds sharply, in defiance.
Doctor sighs. Another has been infected. “Let me help you with that,” he offers, stepping closer and holding out a passive hand. He glances significantly at the other nurse, who is now holding a sedative injection.
Matilda sighs, and holds out her needle. “Fine. The spatula’s not working anyway, I don’t underst-” but she collapses on the floor in a heap, the sedative now coursing through her bloodstream. Doctor exhales slowly and stands up, wringing his hands. Nurse covers Matilda with a blanket and put a consoling arm on Doctor’s shoulder. “You’re doing your best,” she says quietly. But he isn’t convinced.
“None of this should be happening right now. Every one of these people should be leading happy, fulfilled lives.” His voice breaks, and he is silent for a time. Then he says, “You know what we have to do now.” Her eyes widen. After a moment she nods, a jerky movement that belies her horror. Doctor doesn’t say anything further. He walks purposefully toward the medicine cabinet without hesitation, but his hands are shaking as he reaches for the small bottle on the bottom shelf. He almost can’t open the lid, his hands are shaking so. But Nurse’s hands are firm as she turns the top and begins to load each syringe. Together they walk from patient to patient, administering the needle pinprick of death. One is sucking his thumb like a child. Another is coughing softly until his nervous system shuts down. Soon it is just Doctor and Nurse, each holding a last needle. “I never thought it would end like this,” he says, beyond sadness. They’re sitting against the wall of the ward, watching the spiders scurry to and fro along the floor. Nurse doesn’t answer; instead she rolls up her sleeve.
“Wait!” She pauses. “Just, hold off a second, ok?” She looks at him, with those same stricken eyes. “We have to go,” she says. “I know, I know. I only, why? Why is this the outcome? Like you said, we did our best.”
She doesn’t meet his pleading eyes. “Sometimes there is no why. The crazy got us before we could get it. It took us, one by one. I was doing well, holding out. Up until the end. But, I was seeing things. I hid it from you, but I know, I would ask of myself to do this last deed of mercy, had I known it would be the case.” And with that, she plunges the needle into her arm, her eyes popping out of her head, and then she sags against the wall, dead. Doctor cries out, but then catches hold of himself.
He sits there, watching the saliva drain from her open mouth. He had been a good man. He had to believe that. He had tried. For long seconds he was lost in the past, in the long and twisted road that led him here, to this place, this ward. Finally he puts the needle to his forearm. And as he depresses the trigger, he suddenly smells egg fry-up, and he realizes that Matilda wasn’t wrong at all, she hadn’t been crazy: she had been right all along, right about—