The patient was bleeding profusely from his nose, which was a telltale sign he had the plague. I pointed at a corner of the reception area and the attendants carried the stretcher over and left him on the floor.
I followed with my bag hanging heavily on my shoulder so I could give him the tests, checking his temperature and blood pressure, then administer his first dose of cinnamon and milk to try and bring down his temperature. I had to walk around the other patients and nuns and other volunteers ministering to them. People were coughing and crying, and the air was thick with the stench of vomit.
When I got to the man, I noticed he was young, perhaps in his early twenties, too young to be so sick like so many of them. He was rolling back and forth on his shoulders as if he were struggling with some unseen assailant. Another common symptom.
“I’m Jane, and I’m going to take care of you,” I said, trying to suppress the tremor in my voice. “What’s your name?”
“I can’t get out of the snow,” he screamed. “I’m so cold! Get me inside!”
“You are inside and it’s late September in Philadelphia, so it’s still quite warm,” I answered.
“The war, the war!”
“We have all but won it,” I said as I put my hands on his shoulders and held them firmly. He stopped shaking somewhat but he stared at me without any hint of recognition. I wondered if he’d been at yesterday’s parade. Tens of thousands of people had shown up to celebrate our boys as they marched through the center of the city. We had the Germans on the run.
“I’m going to take your temperature and blood pressure,” I said. He just trembled and looked into the far distance.
His fever was 103 and his pressure was quite low, which were both bad signs. I couldn’t listen to his chest because he wouldn’t stop moving, but I expected his lungs were already beginning to fill with pneumonic consolidations. He was likely going to die within the next few days and all I could do was dull his pain, only somewhat.
As I stood, he grabbed my hand. “Help me,” he said, and then lost his voice in a heavy cough.
There was a commotion at the door. Sirens filled the street outside. As many as a dozen more people had arrived, some of them on their knees and unable to stand. Doctors, nurses, and volunteers began running toward the door, abandoning their patients who became agitated. Some of them tried to stand. Everyone raised their voices. I heard screaming.
It was me.
Jane couldn’t stop thinking about her dream as she drove to her first visit. It was the same every day: she’d wake up upset and exhausted as if she’d just worked a hospital shift during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Memories of the pain and chaos would distract her as she got dressed and ate breakfast, then fading once she’d met with her clients. They were the ones who brought her back, her faithful seniors who were all sheltering-in-place, following the governor’s strict guidelines and, as her daily check-ups confirmed, were all healthy.
She worried, all the time really, but they were going to survive COVID-19 together. They made her hopeful, and she would often join with them and dream of better times ahead.
Everyone was fine today, thankfully. Bert and Estelle complained from the moment she arrived to the second before she shut the door to leave, but that’s what they did. Helga was gracious, Fred barely spoke ever, Diane and Debbie were cantankerous but their lovable selves, and good old Arnie insisted on telling her stories he’d told her dozens of times before. She listened patiently and, when necessary, tolerated silently as she took their vitals, checked on their meds, dropped off care packages of food or, more importantly, candies.
It was dusk by the time she was done, though the days were getting longer and slightly warmer. She texted her gourmet shop on the way home and they had her care package ready for her at the curb when she arrived, putting it in her trunk requiring no more than a smile and wave. Jane was a regular.
Once home, she unloaded her box and wiped down its contents in her kitchen, arranging them on her large countertop in front of her tablet in its display stand. She activated it and called Todd, who had his own ingredients arrayed on his counter and was ready for their nightly real-time experiment inventing recipes. It was a great release for both of them, as Todd also worked in healthcare, but he was really a connoisseur, his mom and grandmother having been amateur chefs who approached their avocation with religious zeal.
Jane and Todd weren’t necessarily in a romantic relationship, as such, but their shared gastronomic invention was illicitly exciting for each of them. Within an hour of finishing their session, she went to bed and fell fast asleep.
“She’s a mother of five,” the doctor said, shaking his head and flipping closed the chart dangling from the bed’s iron posted baseboard.
I’d just finished giving her a subcutaneous oxygen injection, hoping that this time it would help her breath more easily. The woman’s chest heaved slowly, her breathing a hushed whistle. She muttered something unintelligible through lips that were blue.
“They’re a prominent retail family here,” he added. “I think she’s the only child, so she’s worth quite a fortune.”
I thought it was strange and somewhat inappropriate for the doctor to discuss our patient’s net worth. But she had a life full of family and friends who knew and loved her. She deserved to be known by us, however imperfectly. I found myself trying to guess which department store bore her name.
A scream behind me interrupted my reverie. I turned and saw a much older man thrashing about on his stretcher. A much younger volunteer was trying to administer his cinnamon, but the man had knocked the spoon from her hand. Brown stain covered his top sheet in a swipe of color. The volunteer held her hands to her chest and stepped back. I walked over to her, putting my hands on her shoulders, which gave her a start.
“Go fetch the epinephrine needle,” I spoke into her ear, trying to be reassuring and at the same time forceful. “We can swab him later, but I suspect he has secondary pneumonia.” I didn’t know this for sure. Nowhere near. But all of us needed ways to feel like we were helping.
I returned to my department store heir. She was already dead.
It was raining on the drive to work. Jane had the wipers on high and had trouble reading the street signs until she was practically underneath them, but she knew the drive by heart, along with the major landmarks. Her suburb was old and somewhat decrepit, so most of the stores had been there forever. The shoe store. Ice cream parlor. Diner.
The department store was gone. Jane squinted to see the street signs at the intersection. It was the right place. What should have been a three-story mock Greek revival edifice taking up almost the entire block was an overgrown, empty field.
A honk behind her told her the light had turned green, so she slowly accelerated, looking over her left shoulder as she passed the space. There had been a store there for sure. She could clearly see the dated display windows in her mind’s eye, though what was in them was fuzzy. The door was framed with ornate ironwork, but did it revolve?
As she returned her attention to the road ahead, she realized the she couldn’t remember the name of the store. Not even a hint.
The rain fell harder as she arrived at Bert and Ellie’s apartment. They were fine, as were all of her other clients, though she sensed unease as she worked with them, or maybe it was her. She found herself reaching for the name of store throughout the day, only it seemed to recede further from her grasp. Did it even have windows on the main floor?
It was still raining when she drove home, so she skipped her gourmet pitstop and later announced to Todd that their evening’s experiment should be to scrounge around in their refrigerators and find something to make. He readily agreed, though Jane was distracted through their ministrations and didn’t even bother naming what she’d ultimately prepared. She told Todd she’d had a tough day and he understood, even though he didn’t.
Jane went to bed and had trouble falling asleep.
I didn’t know what to do next. Four patients were in critical condition, each evidencing a different but equally horrible physical symptom. All of them were delirious. The sounds of yells and cries were deafening. I reached over and pulled at the gown of a nun tending to another group of patients who seemed a bit more sedate.
“We need to get these patients cold compresses,” I said, in a tone that I immediately regretted. Their conditions weren’t her fault.
“The doctor wants to take their samples first,” she answered.
“Samples? We know they’re sick!” I barked. “Get the compresses and apply them, and if that doesn’t work, prepare the warm baths.”
The nun scurried away. I approached the first patient, who seemed to calm just a bit as I leaned over him.
“What’s your name?” I asked
“Farholt,” the man said in a mutter full of troubled noises. I put my palm to his forehead, and it seemed to calm him even more. His face was flushed and sweaty. The nun returned with a bucket and sponge and knelt beside the man. I stepped back as she wiped his brow. Water ran down the sides of his head and would have drenched his sheets if they weren’t already wet.
The patients were packed so tightly that one had her feet pressed up against his. She was coughing uncontrollably, repeatedly wiping the thin line of blood that trailed from her mouth. I knelt beside her and tried to push her wet hair back from her face.
“Help me,” she whispered.
There was nothing I could say in answer to her. I looked into her eyes. They were knowing, she knew what I could see. We could barely diagnose with our swabs and tests and do less in treatment. I thought of apologizing to her. She knew.
A commotion at the front door made me turn my head. Another dozen or more patients had arrived, many accompanied by worried family. Small children accompanied their sick parents, holding onto hands and hems in fear of what they saw before them. The room felt smaller. Warmer.
I turned back to my patient and kept pushing her hair back from her forehead. I think she smiled before being overcome with another coughing fit.
Yesterday’s rain had passed, and the morning was bright and warm. Jane couldn’t remember the details of her dream but instead felt a wave of intense emotions hit her as soon as she got out of bed; first fear, then overwhelming sadness followed by a flinty, suspenseful terror that made her jump at the slightest sound and check twice or three times the steps of a routine that she normally did by rote.
Thank goodness there was little traffic on the roads these days, so she passed the stores and the neighborhood’s big unused field without incident. Bert and Ellie were both in moods and seemed to jump on everything Jane said or needed to do, so she was happy to bid them farewell. Fred’s house was a 5-minute drive away and she found a parking spot right in front on the street, just like always.
When she rang the bell, a young woman answered.
“Hello?” Jane said.
“Hello?” the woman answered.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know you,” Jane continued. “Are you Fred’s daughter, or perhaps granddaughter?”
The woman looked confused. “Fred? Who’s Fred?”
“The man who lives here,” Jane replied. “I’m his caregiver. I’m sure he’s mentioned me.”
The woman shook her head. “You’ve got the wrong house. Nobody named Fred lives here.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve been coming here every day since the early days of the governor’s stay-at-home order,” Jane said. “I’ve got the right place.”
“Well, no you don’t,” the woman answered, the irritation beginning to creep into her tone. “My family has lived here for a hundred years, and I’ve never met or heard of anyone named Fred.”
“I’m sorry,” she added, and started to close the door.
Jane didn’t know what to say, so she turned and began to walk toward her car, past the old brick mailbox that matched the house. It was then that she noticed for the first time that the name “Farholt” was etched into it. She turned back to face the house, but the woman had already closed the door.
The rest of the day was unsettling to the point of utter distraction. Jane had to focus on taking care of her clients, but it was always there in the background, this question that was more of a worry, challenging her, daring her to assert her authority over what was going on. Everyone seemed on edge again, or maybe it was her. It didn’t help that a text to her employer to check on Fred’s account came back with a question mark.
She drove out of her way to pass the house belonging to the patient she’d mistakenly thought lived there whose name somehow escaped her, but her sense of dread was overpowering. Something was wrong. She texted Todd at various stoplights and begged off the evening’s cooking activity.
Jane got home and immediately took a long shower that was anything but relaxing and went straight to bed. She tossed and turned for hours, trying to come to terms with a nagging sense of loss.
I’d read about a theory that putting patients in the outdoors helped them recuperate, or at least impeded transmission of their infections. None of the doctors on staff would give the idea the time of day, although they had no time during the day for anything but tending to one crisis after another. So, I collected some of the volunteers one morning and we cleared a spot on the hospital porch that could accommodate a handful of patients. We carried out the least sick, knowing full well we’d need to get them back inside by nightfall due to the early fall chill in the air.
One of the older doctors confronted me just after we’d got them settled.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “I gave no order to move them.”
“They’re not as sick as the others in the ward, and germ theory suggests it would be healthier for them to breath the fresh air,” I answered, trying not to sound like I was lecturing him.
“That’s preposterous,” he snorted. “If they’re in need we can treat them properly. Move them inside immediately.”
“But there’s barely enough room for them to sit, let alone lie down,” I pleaded.
The doctor looked at me over his glasses. “They won’t be there for long, miss.”
I stood in shock as he walked away, gesturing to the nuns who’d helped me. They dutifully followed his orders and began to move the patients inside.
I wanted to scream but I couldn’t move as one patient and then another disappeared back through the darkened door to the hospital. When the nuns picked up the last patient, another young person in her early twenties, I walked to her side and put my hand on the stretcher. They paused and I leaned over the patient.
“I’m just a cook,” she said to no one in particular.
“I know,” I lied. I felt her little hand try to find mine, and i clasped and held it tightly, and didn’t let go until they carried the stretcher past my reach.
I was alone, the only living being on the porch. It took every ounce of effort I could muster to keep myself from running away, to find someplace where people who were sick got better.
Jane could barely drag herself through her day. Nothing seemed right, her clients were all on edge, scared for their safety because the news about the pandemic was getting darker and more threatening. Jane tried reassuring them, but she didn’t completely believe what she told them.
She decided to make a point of picking up ingredients on the way home, as an evening of cooking might help her out of her funk. Her store gave her two boxes of items, which put her in a slightly better mood. Once home, she unpacked and settled onto the stool at her counter to call Todd.
Only his number was missing from her contacts.
That was weird, but perhaps she’d deleted it by mistake the last time they chatted. She knew it by heart and punched it into the tablet, but it didn’t connect. That was weirder. She tried texting him on her phone. Same result. She opened a browser and tried to send him direct messages on three different social media platforms.
He had no profile on any of them.
This couldn’t be happening. She knew Todd, knew where he lived and what he did for a living. She thought of driving to his apartment, but then a sense of overpowering dread stopped her. She knew what she’d find or wouldn’t find.
I have not been resting well the past few nights, which makes me more emotional and my work more difficult. Being unconscious has been my one refuge from this horrible plague that shows no signs of stopping, no hint that it is done taking thousands of our young people away from us.
It was such a happy respite. I would dream that I lived in the future, in a time when I could travel in my very own motor car, tending to patients who feared getting sick but were healthy. I imagined a time full of miraculous technologies using devices that operated like magic wands and told temperatures in glowing numbers on little boards and days filled with helping people, not simply watching them die.
But I find it harder and harder to sleep at night, and when I do it leaves me as troubled as I am during the day. It’s as if my real life has now encroached on my inner life, this pandemic taking my very imagination for its victim. I worry there is no escape. It controls who I am and who we’ll ever be.
I’m as scared to go sleep as I am to come to work, but then I see my patients I know I will tend to them. So I must hold onto hope, even if it’s only a dream.
[This story will appear in the forthcoming collection of pandemic-related stories entitled Strange In Place]