This was an interesting assignment for me. When we were first told to write a story containing the words death, ward, scalpel, healing, syringe, surgeon, oxygen, formaldehyde, crutch, hydrogen peroxide, blood, nurse, and knife, but that could not be in a hospital, my mind immediately jumped to the idea of a secret research lab. Thus this story turned out very dark, much darker than pretty much anything I’ve ever written before. It was extremely difficult to write, but I feel like the hopelessness of the story gave the last few paragraphs a poignancy they could not have had otherwise.
The stench of death hangs in the air like a cloud, threatening to choke the very life out of your lungs. It’s oppressive, clinging to everyone and everything, seeming to sink down to your very bones. Some of the new wards speak of the smell of flowers in the spring and grass just after it’s rained, but though my mind knows these things must be true somewhere, their stories seem more like fairy tales to tell the younger wards when they start to cry. I’ve been a ward too long to remember anything but the dark, dank labs, and the smell of death.
A sharp scream echoed down the hallway, sending involuntary shivers down my spine. None of us ever know exactly what “tests” the surgeons are running on another ward, but we don’t have to. We know from experience that whatever they’re doing, the ward is sure to be in excruciating pain. The surgeons, the men and women who run the tests, the ones who keep us here, are sick, twisted people. Their only care is that they get their results. They don’t care about us. They don’t care about the pain they put us through.
“Meg!” One of the new wards, Charlie, I think, called out my name, beckoning me over to a ward who has just stumbled back into the common area. I can’t help but sigh. It’s always the same with the new wards. When they first arrive, when their clothes are still clean and fresh, not ripped or stained with blood, they hold onto the hope that if they can just stay alive long enough, someone will come to rescue us.
I glanced quickly at Charlie’s clothes, trying to assess what stage he’s reached. From the state they’re in, I can guess that it won’t be long before he realizes the thing that I’ve known for years. Soon he will realize that no one is coming for us.
“The surgeons ripped her arm out of socket,” he told me, gesturing at the crumpled heap lying on the floor. The small girl sobbed shakily. She could barely breathe through the pain, taking huge, gasping breathes between her sobs.
I knelt down next to her, probing the shoulder for a moment with my fingers before suddenly wrenching it back into place without warning. The sudden onslaught of pure agony made her scream shrilly, but I had already gotten up, dusting the dirt off of my knees.
“It’ll feel better in a moment, but get her a syringe from the cabinet. Don’t worry about making her supply of drugs last for the rest of the month—I doubt she’ll make it that long. She’s too little.” I said cynically. I turned to walk away, but Charlie grabbed my arm.
“We have to get her out of here,” he hissed urgently, “We have to get everyone out of here.”
I shook my head, trying not to scoff. “Get your head out of the clouds.” I told him, jerking out of his grip.
“One of the other wards found an exit!” He said, desperate for me listen.
As much as I hated to admit it, he did catch my attention with that piece of information. I had seen dozens of escape attempts, all of them failures, but no one had claimed to have found an exit before. I put on a disbelieving face as I turned around. “Why are you telling me?”
“You’re the one who’s been here the longest,” he explained. “If we’re going to have any chance of escaping, we need you to help us.”
“When do you leave?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, thinking, “There are a few supplies we’ll need to collect beforehand. We’ll have to make some crutches out of something. I think someone said they had a knife—“
I cut him off there. “What, are you kidding? We’ll never make it out of here if we have to drag along wards who can’t walk on their own!”
“We can’t just leave them!” Charlie protested angrily, “We have to take them too.”
“Then I’m out,” I told him. “You said you won’t have any chance of escaping without me? Well, I’m telling you that you can’t hope to escape if you try to bring everyone.”
“Leaving wards behind makes us no better than surgeons!” He spat passionately.
I rolled my eyes. “There’s no way they’ll make it out. Let me know when you’ve gathered the rest of your group.” I turned and walked to my bunk.
It was the dead of night two days later that Charlie approached me again. Despite the late hour, I was wide awake, trying to drown out the sounds of surgeons demanding a scalpel, or an oxygen tank, or any of the other numerous tools they used in their tests on us. He touched my shoulder gently, swiftly placing an unnecessary hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t cry out.
“Come on—we’re leaving,” he whispered in my ear.
The two of us crept quietly out of the room. A small knot of other wards stood huddled together in the shadows right outside the door, a few keeping careful watch on the hallways around us.
“Alright,” Charlie began, his voice barely loud enough to make out, “We don’t have much time, so we’ll have to move quickly. Henry, lead the way.”
A small ward with dull blonde hair squirmed his way to the front of the group, and strode purposefully up one of the hallways. It didn’t take us long to reach our destination—the door leading to the surgeon’s storeroom. Footsteps echoed up the hallway toward us, and suddenly I felt myself being pushed forward into the room by the other wards, each one desperate to hide from the approaching surgeon.
Charlie closed the door softly behind us. The room had a disturbingly eerie quality to it. We couldn’t risk flipping the overhead lights on, so the only illumination was from the colored lights on the equipment scattered about the room. Those tiny lights cast odd shadows, reflecting off of the glass of specimen jars and refracting to other parts of the room.
However, none of that fazed either Henry or Charlie, the two boys striding quickly through the wards to the door on the other side of the room. Charlie yanked at the handle with all of his strength, but it was apparently rusted shut, and it took a few precious seconds for him to finally jerk the door open. As the door to our escape swung open, so did the one that led to the horrors we were trying to leave behind.
The room exploded in panic. I froze. All of the wards were pushing and shoving their way inch by inch backward, knocking over shelves of experiments, sending them hurtling to the floor. Soon we were all drenched with formaldehyde. Organs and shattered glass littered the floor.
In the confusion, I saw Charlie and Henry slip out the doorway. So much for Charlie’s high and mighty ideas to get all of us to safety—I guess when push came to shove, he wasn’t the hero he thought he was.
Within moments, a crowd of surgeons flooded the room, herding us together in one corner. I could hear some of the other wards sobbing openly, and I sighed. What did they think was going to happen? We had all known that there was only a slim chance we’d be successful.
The surgeons began rounding us up one at a time, leading us separately out of the room. After nearly an hour of herding wards away, as one of the surgeons came for me, something changed. The sound of heavy, pounding footsteps filled the air, drowning out all other sound.
Suddenly people clad in all black burst through the door Charlie and Henry had left through, training dangerous looking guns on the surgeons.
I watched the people in black swarm into the room with disbelief as they slammed the surgeons into the walls, cuffing their hands behind their backs. There was no way this could possibly be happening. I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder, making me start. But when I looked up, it wasn’t a surgeon, or even one of the black clothed people, standing there. It was an angel.
She smiled down at me, her perfect golden hair pulled up out of her face. When she spoke, it was sweeter than anything I had ever heard. “Hello dear. My name’s Jane—I’m a nurse. Do you know what that is?”
I shook my head dumbly, stunned into silence. Was I hallucinating? No one had ever spoken to me so kindly before.
“A nurse is a person who helps people get better, who helps them heal.” She explained. She looked me up and down, taking in my condition. Suddenly I was utterly aware of my pitiful appearance. Her clothes weren’t torn and bloodied like mine, and when she helped me to my feet, I realized the grim that coated my skin was soiling her pure white hands. But all she asked was, “Can you walk?”
“Good!” She said brightly, beaming at me. “Will you come with me? I can get you cleaned up—I’ve got some hydrogen peroxide and some bandages for those cuts and scraps of yours. And once we get you to the hospital, we’ll get the rest of you fixed up, alright?”
I felt hot tears well up in my eyes for the first time in years. “Thank you.” I whispered, my voice catching in my throat. Slowly, but steadily, we walked out of the terrible place I had lived for as long as I could remember. I didn’t look back. For the first time in my life, I could hope.