Esproc Hospital

by Shane Steven Smith

1.

"Mr. Pratt?"

First there was nothing: just layer after layer of pitch blackness, and he was letting it wash over his skin like a cool, summer breeze.

"Mr. Pratt, can you hear me?" The voice again. A women's voice too, because it was high and light and soft around the edges. Every uttered word tore the darkness from him, and he longed for it, grasp for it, but it was too late. Black became grey, and grey to white, until the soothing breeze that had been unconsiousness became a blinding light.

Am I dying?

"Oh, look Ms. K. He's opening his eyes." Another voice, deeper. A man's.

It was brightest directly above him, long strips of white, and they glowed too intense to look at. But he found that if he avoiding looking directly up, then he could focus on the shapes beginning to form around him. This was difficult because, as he began to realize, he was lying on his back.

"Don't try to move, you've been through a lot. Can you look at me, Mr. Pratt?"

The shapes formed around him, three of them. Blue-ish grey things that stood luminously in a circle with the bright light in the middle, two larger than the third. He guessed the third must be the female, who was standing furthest left, and he strained to see her. Squinting, the shape began to change from a shadowy lump to a short, chubby older-women in a flower-print blouse. She was holding a clipboard and looking down at him smiling, but the smile wasn't in her eyes.

"Ahh, good. That's the anestesia wearing off." She smiled again, and then looked down to scratch something on her clipboard. "Do you know what happened to you, Mr. Pratt?"

The rest of his vision cleared as well. There was a sheet pulled up to his chin, and long winding tubes jutting from the crook of his elbow. He could feel that underneath, he was naked. He shook his head.

"You were in an auto- accident. Lucky too, by the sounds of it."

"What happened?" He strained to get the words out. His lips, like his eyes, were groggy and slow.

She paused, frowned, and scratched another note on her pad. He wondered what she was writing. "You don't remember?" She asked, but didn't wait for him to answer. "Richard?"

"Yeah, Ms. K.?"

"Take Mr. Pratt here to recovery ward. ICU-38. Oh, and Mr. Pratt?"

Ms. K. looked down at him seriously. The smile was gone even from her lips, and he waited hesitantly, swallowed.

She handed the clipboard to Richard and muttered something soft in his ear. Then, she turned towards the bed and said, "Welcome to Esproc Hospital, Mr. Pratt."

"Thank you," he said, but it was a sound too soft to hear.

2.

Morphine. They explained to him that they had put him on a diladid drip, and that it was wired intraveniously into him. A constant flow, Ms. K. had said, for the pain. And that was just one of the liquids that the many tubes in his arms carried.

The hallway was a long winding tunnle, and the walls seemed to sink in around him. The sharp edges seemed to round themselves out, and everytime they turned left or right, it seemed they rolled up along the walls. They were painted a nauseating pale green, with no pictures hung along the walls. He didn't dare look directly at the ceiling; fleurecents jutted down with a hideous glare.

"Did you hear about this guy, Ricky?"

Some people passed them by as they made their way into the next section of the hospital, but he never saw a face; his view consisted of only the harshly lit ceiling, and the top half of flat walls. No one said anything. All you could hear were footsteps, and one squeeking wheel of the cot.

And the morphine. It was like a waterfall.

"Yeah, I heard."

"What's gonna happen?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know?"

The cot rounded another corner, and then halted. There were the tops of two double doors in front of the gurney, and they were stopped in front of them. After a moment, they split, and he was rolled between them, over a bump. The whole bed shook. The one Ms. K. had called Richard was staring down at him, examining him, frowning. "I wonder if he even knows what he's done," he asked the other one.

"He said he don't remember nothing," Came the other voice. What had been the third shape in the room, he remembered. He stepped out from behind him, but the cavern of the elevator was darker than the hallway and his face was a shadow. Just his lips were showing.

"That don't make it right, Carl."

"No, it don't."

The elevator started to hum, and they were motioning upward. A gentle rise that could be felt deep in his stomach. The morphine was making his head swim.

"So, tell me Mr. Pratt. Do you remember anything?" The other shadow asked him, leaning down. Ricky was a young man, looked twenties and was dressed in light-blue orderly scrubs. He had a name tag that read: Richard Wilson C.N.A. and he was sheefing through the notes Ms. K. had jotted. "Says here that you are a Steven Pratt of Chancey Mass. You suffered injury to the left leg. Mashed it up pretty good, by the looks of it."

Do all orderlies talk like that? He struggled with words.

"So how do you feel, Mr. Steven Pratt of Chancey?" Carl was asking him now. He was leaning in closer, grinning at him. "How does it feel to kill a kid?"

Steven shook his head. Started to speak. "I--,"

"Do you know how it feels to kill a kid, Ricky?"

"No, I don't know how it feels. Do you know how it feels, Carl?" he answered, tauntingly.

"No, I don't know how it feels, either. I've never offed a kid before.Why don't we ask Mr. Pratt?" They laughed. They were both grinning down at him now, two chattering heads, like skulls out of the darkness.

Carl, still laughing, put his face right down close to Steven's, inches away. Steven could smell his breath. It smelled sweet-like bubble gum. He was too scared to speak, confused. With his other hand, Carl put his fist around the little plastic bubble at the top of one of Steven's I.V. tubes. Squeezed it like a water balloon. It deflated in his fist. "How does it feel Mr. Pratt?" he whispered softly and smiled. His eyes were blue and direct.

Just then the elevator doors opened with a ding and Ricky kicked the cart out between them. It rolled into the hallway and Steven could hear their voices trailing as he rolled away, unguilded. His bed banged in to the wall of the hallway.

"We're gonna get you Mr. Pratt." Boyish laughing. "Bet on it."

And then there was nothing. He imagined amber liquid slithering like a snake into his skin.

3.

The television is on in the room he is in, if you could even call it a room. It looked like a section of the hallway that was cut off from the rest by a small curtain. Shink, shink. Steve had listened to it go back an forth a few times before he had opened his eyes. The TV is mounted up high on the wall, and he can see it easily from the bed he is in. It looks like morning cartoons; on the screen the cat takes a sledge-hammer and smashes the mouse into the ground.

"I checked up on those orderlies you mentioned, Steven." The nurse's name was Xue, but it was pronounced like Sue. It was chinese she said, and so was she.

"Ricky and Carl?"

"That's right."

"And?"

Xue grabbed a pair of latex gloves and was putting them on. Stretching them over her fingers, one by one. "I checked it out and neither a Richard, nor a Carl work here. On any floor, for that matter." She walked over to Steven and began to pull the sheet down his body. Suddenly he was very cold, and colder still when she pulled the sheet from his legs.

It was the first time he had seen them. The right one looked alright, bruised and purplish maybe. But the left one was still in a cast, suspended in the air inches above the mattress. Just the tiniest dot of blood was peeking out from underneath the cast. Xue took a small white wash cloth and began to wash his chest, arms and stomach with the cool cloth. Goosepimple formed on his forarms.

"That's impossible, Xue. They wheeled me up here for christ's sake!"

She nodded. "I checked into that too," she said. Then, after a pause, "Sally checked you in, Steve. I asked her myself. She even signed the log-book," she said.

Steve couldn't even begin to form words. They seemed foreign behind his lips. He was thinking of Carl. And how he'd been grinning. How does it feel, Mr. Pratt?

Xue seemed to see it on his face. "The mind is funny on morphine, Steven. It can play tricks on you." She continued to wash him, under his arms. There were little clusters of dried blood around the punctures of the I.V. "My advice is to forget the whole thing. You've got other things to worry about. Now, we're going to want to wash your back as well. Can you sit up?"

He did. "Xue, can I make a phone call?"

She didn't look up at him, just kept on washing. "Oh, I think not," she said. "Not yet, anyway."

4.

Hospital time is slow time, and the only way to really tell how much time had passed was the television. It was the news. In the upper hand corner of the screen it told you the time, and right now it read:

10:42

but he had no idea whether it was 10:42 in the morning or the night. He was sitting up in bed and sucking on icechips from a cup, the only thing he could eat. Xue had told him the Doctor wanted to see if the leg took. If it did, great. But if not, back under the knife. The anestesia, Xue said, would make him vomit. So here he was, sucking away at the cold little lumps, and flicking through the channels.

Xue had explained all that. Along with the mess of tubes connected to his elbow, there were also other cords mixed in. One of them led to a call-button that he could press anytime he needed something. When he did, a little light went on over his head, and you could see it from beyond the separating curtain. The next led to a remote control that connected to a cord that led into the wall. He could turn it off and on and change the channel, but not the volume. It remained at nearly a whisper.

You don't want to disturb my other patient. Xue had warned.

The other cord was his favorite thing, and most often used. It was a manilla colored wire that led to a square with a single button on it. One push of that button, no matter how unconfortable he was, and it would go away. He had a constant morphine drip that ran directly into his blood stream, along with antiboitics and other fluids, but this one was stronger. This was for emergency pain, Xue had said. If it got really bad. All he had to do was press it, and he would float away.

"Xue?" he called out to the empty room. Steve could hear his voice echo.

No answer. "Xue?" he called again.

Nothing. All he could hear was the beeboop..beeboop of the machine that connected all of his cables, and the T.V. in the background.

"in a tragic factory accident, workers of Becklin Manurfactoring had to be rushed out of town because" the television rambled on.

"Xue?"

"seemingly, there was no hospital in the area. Several injured, only one dead reported so far. This is Kathy Nolan, reporting from"

No answer.

He fumbled with the cables that were around him. Found the call-button, pushed it.

The little light above him stayed off. He pushed it again. Nothing. "Xue?"

"Yes, Mr. Pratt?" But it was not Xue. It wasn't a women's voice at all, he realized: it was a man's.

Or a boy's. Immediately he recognized it as the voice of the first orderly, the one Ms. K. had called 'Richard.'

Four fingers wrapped themselves around the edge of the curtain that divided his room. They waited there, but didn't pull the sheet back.

"Xue!" he called again, louder, and tried to move. In a maze of cords and a suspended leg, he was trapped in his bed. Struggling, he felt a shard of heat shoot from his thigh to his hip, and up to his rib-cage.

Shink. The sheet flew back and one form appeared.

"No one here, Mr. Pratt. Just you and me. Oh yeah, and Carl."

Laughter. "Yeah," the second form chuckled. "And me, Steve-O."

They stepped closer to Steve, standing over his bed like they had the first time.

"What do you want with me-" Steve screamed, but the first orderly shoved his hand over his mouth. He stiffled his scream with one sweaty palm, pushing down hard, jamming it into Steve's jaw. He winced and stopped when he felt something else. A prick against his skin, unmistakeably the tip of a needle.

"You better shut up, Mr. Pratt, or Carl here's gonna fuck you up." He hissed at him. Carl was towering over him, grinning and chomping on bubble-gum. He winked at Steve as he held the tip of the syringe to Steven's flesh. It contained a murky greenish liquid, and the needle's silver tip glittered ominously. Then the hand was released from his mouth. Steve gasp and drew in air. "There, that's better. Gonna be quiet, aren't you Mr. Pratt?"

Steven nodded.

"Good," he said, but Carl didn't surrender the needle. He held it pressed firmly against him, poking and leaving a dimple. Richard stood above him, staring off into space. "They brought the girl in earlier today," he said, still without looking at him.

Steve wasn't sure whether he should speak or not. Instead, he said nothing.

Carl spoke next, but he didn't stare off into space. He stared directly at him, still grinning. He looked like he was having fun. "Yeah, I heard that, Ricky," he said.

"They said she was a mess."

"Yeah."

"They said her little plaid dress was fucking covered in blood. Shit, and how old was she?" he asked, still as if in a daze. Steve could see his name tag on the lapel of his scrubs, a little, white tag.

"Like seven. Maybe six."

"Six. Fuck man, it wasn't her time yet." He rambled on.

"Not even close, Ricky."

This is maddness, Steven thought. These men are crazy and I am going to die right here tonight.

"They said her little legs with twisted completely backwards, that her feet were by her head"

Carl was laughing, bright blue eyes grinning insainly down at Steven. "Like a fucking pretzle, Ricky," he said.

"that her face had hit the glass so hard one eye had popped out of her head and rolled.."

"Popped! Ha ha!"

"..down the road. They said someone had to pick it up." Then Richard paused, and Carl looked up at him. Silence entered the room again. BeeboopBeeboop ticked the machine, and the mumbling TV. Richard's shoes squeeked on the floor as he turned. "But you don't remember any of that, do you Mr. Pratt?"

"No way man. You were gonzo, man. Fucking, out!" Carl exclaimed.

Steven dared not utter a word. He wasn't sure he was expected to, anyway.

"Well?"

Steven shook his head, and he could feel Richard read into his eyes, searching deep. They seemed to penatrate him, two black almonds.

"No," he said at last. "I don't suppose you do. Anymore than you remember how they found you, isn't that right Mr. Pratt?

Steven shuddered.

"No, you don't remember anything. But you will. You see the Doc tommorrow, and he's gonna show you everything. We'll see what happens then."

Richard paused, stood motionless, as if something had just struck him. Then he leaned down, close to Steven, and put his hands down on the metal side of the bed. The mattress screamed under the pressure, and Richard lowered himself further. His hospital scrubs were inches from Steven's nose. Identification tag dangled. On it it read: Richard Wilson, Morgue.

Hadn't it been-

"Yeah. We'll see what happens then, Mr. Pratt. I bet he'll send you down to us." Then he stood up from the bed and straightened his uniform. "Come on, Carl," he said. "Let's get Mr. Pratt's nurse."

Carl laughed and pulled the tip of the needle away from Steven's skin. The dimple was sore and marked, and Steven masaged the area gingerly. Carl saw and shook his head, wonderously. "When are you going to learn, Steve-O? None of that matters now." Then he shook his head again and followed Richard away from the bed.

Then, Shink! of the curtain being pulled back and they were gone. Steven could hear their footsteps trailing away. Carl was whistling. "See ya! Steve-O!" he yelled.

Steven lay their in the room for a while, shaking underneath his sheet. He dared not to call out to Nurse Xue again, dared not do anything for that matter, for he feared what answer he might invite. Instead he clicked off the television-

"-twenty nine seriously injured, three dead. Could have been prevented if care had been av-"

--and sat in the darkness for a while. It reminded him of unconsiousness but not of the soothing, cool summer breeze. He sat, listened to the gentle beeboopbeeboop.. that was his pulse. He wondered what it had sounded like moments ago, when Carl had held the glimmering syringe to his skin, and masaged the area again. The dimple was gone, but the area was still sore.

Fumbling through the cords, he found the one that he wanted. Steven didn't push the call-button to get the nurse and to turn on the little light. Wrapping his hands around the little manilla wire he followed it all the way to the end. His fingers searching blindly, found the little button on the end. Pushed it.

Again. He didn't think sleep would come, and it didn't. Not for a long time. He lay awake listening to the sound of his own breathing.

But then it did.

5.

Steven dreamed about the accident.

In his mind he could still see the highway, and the winding road that had led to it. His Honda, purring beneath him. The way the wind felt in your hair at better than seventy miles an hour. It was beautiful, sunny too. Golden rays shown through the trees. The sky was a clear blue, not a speck of white.

He'd been riding all day, he remembered. He'd done it every evening since Linda had left him and remarried, taking their only child, Alley, with her. His motorcycle had at first been a way of coping, but then grew into a hobbie over time. She was in his mind that day, and was probably even the reason why he noticed the little blue hatchback in the first place.

It passed him on the highway, in the left lane, not even going that fast. The spedometer on his handlebars said fifty and that was fifteen miles an hour below the limit. There was a convertible in front of him and Steve was anxious on his tail, so he flipped on his signal and headed into the left lane, behind the small blue hatchback.

There were two children in the back, a boy and a girl Steve guessed. The boy was sitting down in his seat, but he noticed the little girl was staring at him. She had her face pressed up against the glass and she was smiling.

Kind of looks like Alley.

With that thought he waves quickly at her, just a flash. She waves back and smiles. Her pig tails dangle.

That was the last thing Steven remembers thinking because after that is complete blackness. He never even saw the convertible cut in front of the little blue hatchback. He never even saw when the mother of that little girl with the pigtails had to slam on the breaks.

But it was too late. Steven wasn't looking at any of that. But he did see one thing, though. One thing he still remembers.

How close her face had gotten.

6.

"Nurse!"

Nausea. Dry-heaving.

"Oh, gosh, oh gosh oh-"

"Nurse! Get a hold of yourself!"

Blackness.

7.

"I guess you had quite a night," Xue was saying. She was washing him again, with her cool clothe, the sheet pulled down to bare the top half of his body. In small cirlces she soaked, and the motion was relaxing. "Kept Janey up half the night," she said and continued washing, looking down.

Steven frowned. He hadn't even mentioned the ordeal with the orderlies. She wouldn't believe him anyway. "Is Jane your other patient?"

She nodded. "And she has such trouble sleeping too, especially with the news and everything."

"What do you mean?" He shook his head, and thought of when Carl had screamed down the hall way See Ya, Steve-O! Didn't that keep her patient awake? Didn't anyone hear that?

"Well, they've been airing it constantly. Actually, that's what brought me into your room in the first place. You fell asleep with your TV on and she said she could hear it. You know, the news. It disturbed her."

He didn't say anything.

"About the plant?" She looked at him quizzically. "You were watching it, you know," she insisted.

"You mean the manurfactoring accident?" He asked. He was wondering what any of this had to do with him.

"Mm hmm," she said and nodded. "And when I came in here to shut of the TV that's when you started screaming. Real loud, too. Nearly scared me half-to-death."

But I shut the television off. That's the first thing I did after Ricky and Carl-

"You were yelling: 'Get her out of the car. Get her out of the car.' Over and over again. Your pulse was one-fifty over sixty and that's scary." Then she said, "Can you sit?"

He leaned up and she started to wash his back, under his arms, his buttocks. Then she did his forhead and brow. Cool water trickled down the side of his nose.

"You did it for like an hour, and then you stopped. Just like that, just stopped. But by then you had scared her so bad, she couldn't get back to sleep. It's important for patient's to get there rest, you know." It wasn't a question. The whole time she hadn't been looking at him. Now she glared.

"I know, and I'm sorry. I-" he was trying to explain, but really didn't even know where to begin. He wasn't even sure exactly what he was apologizing for, exactly, but he somehow felt it was expected. Steven could feel himself twitching nerviously. This was Nurse Xue, maybe the one friend he had in this lonely place.

Then, all at once, the look faded from her eyes, and she looked normal again. The kind look reappeared and she smiled. "Nevermind. It doesn't matter anyway because you won't be watching any television today. Today, you go back to O.R. You go to see the Doctor."

He swallowed. "The Doctor? When?"

"As soon as we finish here. Okay, sit back."

He did. The sheets stuck to his still damp skin, but he didn't mind. He sighed.

"You know, and it would be so bad either, but it's on all the time."

"What's that?"

"The news. Just because it happened right here in town, they think they have to amend it or something. It drives me nuts." She wrung out the cloth and brought it over to the little silver sink. Rewet it, and came back over. Now she was wiping down his right leg, the one not in the suspended cast.

"The factory? But the factory's not in town, surely." He was confused.

She nodded. "Becklin's only about two blocks from here, just up on the right. My kids used to go to school right across the street, right through grade school. They had a good art program. Alright Steven, you're finished." She stood up and pulled the sheet back over his body.

"But the news said"

Morphine, Steve-O. This is where the ground slips away.

"the news said there wasn't any hospitals in the town it happened. They said they had to transport the injured out. They-" he was rambling, he realized.

She smiled down at him, and shook her head. Concern was in her eyes, as if she felt sorry for him. "There isn't," she said. Then she turned away, walking away from the bed.

Steven could see that the rear half of her head was missing. Some of the hair was there, but it was dark and matted and bloody. A huge chunk of her scalp was missing, like a section of cocanut broken off, and her brains oozed out like a murky white milk. It was dripping on the floor, in little pink drops. She turned around and grinned at him. "The Doctor will see you now," was all she said. Shink!

Steven screamed. And passed out.

8.

"Several injured in a tragic factory accident, workers of Becklin Manurfactoring had to be rushed out of town becauseseemingly, there was no hospital in the area. Several injured, three dead reported so farcould have been prevented if aid had been availible. A shame. This is Kathy Nolan, reporting from"

It wasn't the Doctor who came and got him, it was two elderly over weight women. They were both plump and round and dressed in flower print blouses, wearing too much lipstick. Chattering on about the best way to make a crust.

"Seriously Lucy," one was saying to the other. "You have to kneed it just right, otherwise it won't come out crisp and brown."

"Browning doesn't have anything to do with the kneeding. It's the butter," the other chimed in. "Besides, your pie crust stinks!" They laughed and wheeled him into a large room. The hallway opened up and Steven immediately felt agoraphobic; he'd grown accustomed to the hallway cut-off as a room. This was just immense.

The room was a large, living thing in itself. There was a large desk with orderlies, nurses and doctors in lab coats surrounding it. Everybody was talking and yelling and trying to shout at once, leaning over each other to get closer. Several women carried clipboards and bustled away hurriedly in all directions. Everyone was working, working, working.

The two women wheeled him over to a side section, off in the corner of the room. It was a brightly lit section, with four other hospital beds lined up underneath the lights. They parked his right at the end of the line, like the last domino.

"Alright Mr Pratt, let's get you prepped. Lucy?"

"Already got it."

"Thank you darling."

All of a sudden Steven began to feel very sedated. Not sleepy neccesarily, but something other than awake. darkness, like a cool summer breeze, washing over his skin

"He's kind of cute, don't you think?"

"Little muffin face. Such a shame," the one called Lucy answered as they walked away. Steven could hear there footsteps trailing off as she said it again. "Such a shame,"

"a shame. This is Kathy Nolan reporting from.." His mind replayed, like a tape recorder.

Then they were gone.

The edge of his mind felt slippery, hard to hold onto. And the corners were rounded, soft. Everything was blurry, shapes, and it reminded him of his awaking in this place. He could feel whatever they had prepped him with setting in.

Welcome to Esproc Hospital, Mr. Pratt. One women had said. He could see her now, in his mind, mouthing the words like blowing out candles at a birthday party. 'Esproc' came out painfully slow.

"this is Kathy Nolan reporting from.."

"Welcome to-"

Esproc.

"I should've been sitting down Mister. I should have been in my seat."

The voice snapped him out of it, startled him. Steven's eyes darted around, looking for some one, but there was no one there. Just the bustle of people in the distance. Immediately he thought of Richard Wilson and his buddy Carl, but then disreguarded it. The voice hadn't sounded like a man's. It was a girl's.

A young girl's.

"You should've let me stay in my seat, Mister. You shouldn't have made me laugh." It was coming from the bed next to Steven, the voice was just a whisper. It was the high tremor of a child's, coming a sheet which was pulled way up past where Steven could see. All he could make out was a small form underneath the thin white covering.

He could hear his heart beat thudding in his head. Everything else seemed to fade away. The nurses, the orderlies, the bustle. All gone. All he could focus on was the body underneath the sheet.

And that it was moving.

"You shouldn't have made me wave."

The sheet was being pulled down slowly, but only because the object underneath was sitting up. He could see it sliding down, inching along, and he didn't want to see. But he couldn't look away.

"Because if you hadn't waved to me Mister, I might-"

The sheet fell to the child's waist and she sat up. Steven could see her pigtails, loosened and coming undone. Her little plaid dress was matted and dark. Instinctively, Steven knew it was blood.

Looks kind of like Alley.

She was missing one eye. The hole was gaping and dark and oozed a yellowy substance that dripped-

9.

"The doctor will see you now, Mr. Pratt," was all he heard and then he was being wheeled away again, but not far. The two women were back, now debating whether it was better to use eggs or an eggs substitute. Lucy argued that you could no way replace the flavor of real eggs.

"Ahh, I see you were talking to the Ashtin girl. Good. That might help the Doctor. You know, every little thing and all that."

Then they paused and Lucy came over to him, smelling of sweat and sweet purfume. "I guess you don't need this anymore," she said, looking at the cast surrounding his left leg. With a shiny pair of shears, she began cutting it off of him. He could feel the cool blade trail up his flesh. She pulled off the cast like a cacoon in one swift motion, and swept it away. His leg was bared.

It was mangled. That was the only word for it. It was not the leg of some one who's going to get better, it was the leg of a man who had been put through a wood-chipper.

One of the women was nodding to the other. "Looking much worse," she said, and the other one nodded back.

"Very good." Then she wheeled him over to a set of double doors, through them. An elevator. Steven could feel himself rising, rising. Higher and higher.

From just above the knee it was ground and flattened. You could see the bone in three sections, where the flesh had been torn away, and it jutted out of his body in splintered little pieces.

There was a loud Ding! And the elevator doors opened. Shown through was a blinding white light. Steven couldn't see what was beyond those doors. "The top!" Lucy exclaimed.

Steven struggled to clear his throat and find his mind. "Wait," he said. Then, "am I going to die?"

Then the old women smiled down at him and her lips cracked in the rouge make-up. Her teeth were yellow. "Darling, I thought you already knew," she said. "You're already dead."

10.

The room was all white and glowing. Steven couldn't see anything in it, but still the elderly women pushed him through. Their chatter had stopped. Nothing but silence now.

The cart stopped suddenly, and without saying anything they scurried away, leaving him alone in there. They hurried to shut the door behind themselves.

Nothing. Silence. And white.

"Hello?" he called out, not sure that he had. Can dead men call out?

As much as they can get operated on, I guess.

He called out again, but still no answer. Just bleak nothingness and white. Then a form. Not a shadowy form, but a light colored on. After a moment, the blindingness cleared lile clouds parting and a man in a white lab coat stepped forward. He had blonde hair and a goatee. He had his hand's in his pockets. "I hear you, Mr. Steven Pratt of Chancey. But the real question is, can you hear me?"

The man smiled at Steven, and there was nothingness behind him. Just his face, framed by luminous white. There were no walls, no floors, no up and no down. It was just exactly like they were floating, Steven in his gurney and the Doctor in front of him, floating in mid air.

"Yes. You can hear me just fine. Come! Walk with me."

Steven looked increduiously up that the man in the white coat, started to say something but then couldn't. His tongue was dried in his mouth.

The Doctor shook his head, smiled tenderly. "You don't need your legs to walk, Steven."

He remembered Carl's voice, as he plucked the needle from his arm. "When are you going to learn, Steve-O? None of that matters now."

And all at once he found himself sitting up, rising, pulling wires from his arms. Slow and cautious at first, but then faster. Blood sprayed from the crook of his elbow in a tiny little squirt when he did, but Steven didn't even notice it. No pain. Suddenly he felt energized, reborn, alive. He slid down to the edge of the bed, not daring to look at the mangled mess that was his left leg. He felt it bend at the knee as they hung over the edge of the mattress.

"Ahh. Good, Steven. Now jump!"

He did. And all at once he was standing, up out of the bed. He felt himself teetering, wobbling a little, off balance.

Don't think about the leg don't think about the legdon'tthink-

And then he was fine. Standing. And the panic fled from him. He stood and looked down.

He was naked, but that wasn't important thing. He was standing there on two legs, two good legs, not the horrible mangled mess they had been. Along the thigh that Steven had moments ago seen his own bones jutting out of was purplish, healthy flesh. It looked bruised and damaged, but it was not the bloody pulp it had been.

"How" Steven mouthed the words.

"Nevermind," the Doctor said and grabbed Steven's hand. The Doctor's hand was warm and soft. Like a child's. "That's the easy part. Come, I want to show you something," he said.

"Where am I?" Steven asked.

He paused for a moment. Then, "In between," he said. "That's what the nurses call it anyway, but never to any of the patients. To them, it's just-"

"Esproc."

"That's right."

It seemed that they were walking on nothing, just surrounded by white. It was like a dream, slow and mesmerising, until Steven realized it wasn't complete nothingness. There were pictures on each side of where they walked, flashing and changing, like a movie screen.

"But why the hospital? Why the news?" he asked, but he was thinking of Nurse Xue, and when she had turned around and most of her skull had been missing.

"We find that some people have a hard time excepting their death. They just can't grasp it, always thinking they're going to heal. That they're going to live forever. So that's why we use Esproc Hospital. On some level, maybe just subliminal in your case, patients realize that Esproc Hospital spelled backwards means-"

"Corpse."

The Doctor was nodding, and still going on. The pictures on each side of him swirled and changed, and he saw a picture of a young women. Like an eternity ago, Steven realized it was his mother. Holding an infant. Himself.

"Exactly. After a few days, the patient realizes what has happened. Usually through dreams, they recount their death and that helps with the healing process. Because Steven, if you don't heal in this world, you can never be whole in the next."

"You're talking about acceptance."

"Do you accept that you killed her?"

It wasn't her time.

The question was like a slap in the face. He was stunned, said nothing. Then the Doctor stopped walking and touched Steven on the shoulder..

"You can make it right again, Steven. All you have to do is want to."

Tears ran down Steven's cheeks. "But it was an accident," he pleaded. "An accident!" he roared, screamed at him.

But the Doctor only smiled. "Steven, there are no accidents. Everything happens because of something else. Life is like dominos, Steven. I only watch them fall."

It all made sense to him, all at once. Like dominos. If they hadn't had Alley, he wouldn't have married Linda. If he hadn't hit Linda, she never would have taken Alley. If she hadn't taken Alley, he wouldn't have missed her so much, and he would have never waved to the little girl in the back of the blue hatchback.

Kind of looks like Alley.

And if he hadn't waved to the girl with the pig-tails and the little plaid dress, she might've been safely seated and belted when the convertible cut them off. She would've never checked in to Esproc Hospital, like her brother and her mother who had only sustained minor injuries.

She wouldn't have died. He remembered the shape under the sheet down stairs and how she had sat up to talk to him.

"It wasn't her time, Steven. I think you know that, now." He squeezed Steven's shoulder and looked down saddly at him. "But you still have a choice," he said.

Steven barely heard him. He was looking past him at the pictures on the walls. Now, quite a few showed him. Older, and he remembered some of the instances, pictures of himself when he'd been alone. Pictures in school, where surely they would allow no photographer, pitctures of him on his first date. Slowly, he realized it was his life. He looked up at the Doctor. "How do I make it right?" he asked. He was crying.

"There, there my dear child. It'll be fine. It wasn't her time yet, saddly no. But it was passed yours. The moment your hand came down on your wife and you wished for death, it became your Time. You were way overdue. And having some difficulty making the process, I might add."

"What do you mean?"

"Dear boy, don't you understand? You only came here because she died. If she hadn't, you would have-

"Never ended up here at all." Dawning realization over came him. "I would have lived."

The Doctor nodded. "Like I said: having some difficulty making the process. But when the little one showed up here so early, so before her Time, they checked you into Esproc, as well. You know, just in case."

"Just in case of what?"

"Just in case I could fix her. Because-"

"You can only send one of us back." Steven finished. It was simple. It was my time and not hers. He should have died, and her have lived. Why not just swap places?

"That's right."

Steven stood staring off into space, trying to take it all in. Finally, he whispered. "When do we begin?"

"Oh, my dear boy," the Doctor said. "We already have."

11.

It's nice out sometimes, and the sun shines though the windows of the hospital on nice days. Sometimes the orderlies on the fourth floor leave them open and let the cool, summer breeze wash through. That's what the Doctor said anyway, although he said he didn't think Steven would be on the fourth floor.

Steven didn't know where the Doctor had told Ricky and Carl to take him. Didn't know where he'd be staying.

But he guessed it was on one of the lower levels.

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