DEATH WAS BACK.
The nightmare was always the same. "CODE BLUE!" screamed the nurse.
Andrea worked feverishly to save the dying patient. She had to save this one! Pink frothy bubbles gathered around the gaping mouth. Ragged gasps for air frantically filled the room. Reaching for the code cart, she grasped the defibrillator. Gripping the paddles firmly, she placed them on the heaving chest.
"Okay, stand clear," she ordered, checking to see no one touched the patient. Her thumbs pressed the paddle-buttons in unison and she searched the patient's dilated pupils. The face melted into Sarah's. Dear, sweet, little... It can't be.
"Not Sarah -- my baby! Please... don't let this happen."
Sarah's chest opened. A skeletal hand lunged through the gaping chest-wound and grabbed Andrea's throat in an octopus grasp, pulling her down...down...down -- into the clotted, smothering gelatinous mass--
Somewhere in the deep recesses of the dream, Andrea heard the noise. Slowly, painfully, reluctantly, she rose to conscious-ness, slammed her fist on the alarm that buzzed mercilessly beside the bed, and bolted upright. Gasping for breath, she automatically reached for her inhaler and sucked its medicine deep into her lungs.
Initially confused, she gazed around the room. Not home. Still at the hospital. The phone's incessant ring pounded in her head like nails under a hammer.
Night-call. She was alone. Surrounded by blackness and her failure to help the living.
As a child, Andrea had always loved the night, but since entering medicine, Sunday night-call at Dorlynd Medical Center was the worst. Located in the inner city, violence and death surrounded it.
"Damn. Short night." She swung her legs over the side of the bed. Her chest caught. Asthma attack? Oh, yeah. That awful dream.
Saturated and surrounded by death, she'd already lost three patients the night before. She thought a lot about dying lately -- even herself. What would happen this time? Would she court death by her own hand again? With a knife to sever her hold on life? Like her precious Sarah? Gone. Lifeless, like a rag doll. Her daughter's pale, staring face rose in her mind. This thinking could be dangerous. Very dangerous, especially now. Depression and death. Would it be slow and painful, like the patients she cared for?
Andrea shook her head. No way could she let thoughts pull her down. She was just tired, that's all.
Chief Residents like Andrea normally didn't take call, but McNaughton was sick and at the last minute it was too late to readjust the schedule. So she bit the bullet and covered for him. Andrea crawled back into the safety and warmth of the covers and waited for her lungs to fill with air. Such a simple element, but in great demand. With each passing day her asthma worsened. Too much air pollution, ozone problems. Soon, she feared, all clean air would be gone.
Again she kicked the covers back and cursed her fate. The bed was always so soft and inviting in the morning. Andrea staggered to the bathroom, started the water, and turned toward the mirror. Steam collected on the silvered surface, and she traced her outline on the glass, following the beads of water dripping down the slick surface.
Thirty-five and holding. Always her best feature, tiny creases defined her large, round eyes -- they'd deteriorated, too. Her fingers caught in her sleep-tangled hair and pushed it back from her face. Andrea tossed her scrubs in the corner and eased under the hot stream.
Slowly, her stiff muscles responded to the pulsating water and she leaned against the shower wall. The bubbling stream formed a small collecting pool. Carefully wrapping the bar of soap in a wash cloth, she ran it over her body and sopped over the thick scar tissue on each wrist, a souvenir of another life best forgotten.
Steam-heat coiled from the shower to fill the bathroom, but Andrea shivered. Lately, she was cold all the time. Not so much from the air-conditioning but from an iciness that encased her heart...her very soul.
After eight years of medical school and internship, she'd sworn off any more time in the Omaha humidity. But still she'd stayed. A faculty appointment at Dorlynd was worth the hardship of Omaha's unpredictable climate.
Month in, month out, the week always started with Mon-days. What better day to confront Dr. Milton Grafton, her so-called mentor, about his treachery. True, millions of dollars in grant funds flooded into Dorlynd through his extensive AIDS research. He'd entrusted Andrea with all the secrets in his possession. They'd been so close and, now, she almost hated him. He'd promised a faculty position and gone back on his word. He'd humiliated her with the Dean, made her lose her temper in public. How could she ever face Hardwyn again? Could that be the reason for the asthma attack and the nightmare? She was sick of men trying to walk all over her. And she had the footprints on her back to show it. Starting with Josh's size elevens and ending with Grafton's. No that wasn't fair. She'd vowed never again would she allow another man to do to her what her ex-had done. Never!
A surprisingly cold spray startled her and she glanced at her feet. A froth of soap collected at the drain, merged into a large gaping mouth, reminiscent of her nightmare. One by one, the tiny orbs broke and spiraled down...down...down into nothingness.
Was there some dark, awful place where soap scum went? She trembled again. Somewhere death also lurked?
Andrea shook her head to clear it. She'd been in the shower too long. Her fingers and toes were water-withered and aged. Hastily, she got out and donned a warm, terrycloth bathrobe. The rumpled bed beckoned. Crawling back in, she dammed Mondays. It was always the same.
She smiled. Only six years ago she'd been a junior medical student demanding to be taught. Years of hard work, night call, and sheer perseverance had finally landed her a Chief Residency.
What good did it do now, if the Dean was right about her promotion. Damn! She'd better watch herself. It'd be easy to snap at the students today.
"Get your ass in gear, Dr. Pearson," she said, throwing back the covers. She grabbed the square-neck gray suit and matching pumps, part of a shopping spree at Dillards several weeks ago and stopped. Wearing the same thing two days in a row was unavoidable tackiness. She tore through the bathroom looking for her makeup, then she remembered. It was at home. Her only defense today would be a clean face and hospital toothpaste.
Andrea hurried toward the cafeteria. Ugh! Hospital food. She wasn't really hungry, but needed something. A glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice would raise her blood sugar. Warm her up. Maybe some bacon?
She glanced around the cafeteria. Six-ten. A couple of sleepy students stumbled through the door obliterating the empty solace of the place. She downed her coffee in two gulps. In less than two hours medical students would descend upon the Faculty Clinic Building where she and Milton shared an office suite. Weekends, it was virtually deserted. No one except the on-call physician went there, but during weekdays it teemed with secretaries, nurses, and patients.
She crossed the physician's parking lot admiring the rows of Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexes -- was that the plural of Lexus? She didn't know. But there sure were plenty of them -- even around six a.m. Someday, she'd have a Mercedes, too. Of course, if she didn't get the faculty position, she'd have to do a fellowship. In that case she'd be almost forty before she could think about buying one. Old. She hated the image of an old woman in a young car.
She could wait. After all, she was still alive -- even though her precious Sarah wasn't. A deep, icy ache traveled from her heart and gripped her lungs.
Andrea unlocked the main entrance, started toward the stairs, and immediately changed her mind. With her asthma acting up, she couldn't make one flight of stairs let alone the five to her office.
God, she felt awful. A vice squeezed her chest -- she couldn't seem to catch her breath. She sensed death all around her and she was sick of it. The dream had been so real. She looked down at her scarred wrists and shivered as though a skeletal hand still gripped them.
She could take Inderal to slow down the heartbeat and calm her, but it was contraindicated in asthmatics. It blocked the effects of her medication, leaving her vulnerable to another attack.
Opting for the elevator, she thought she'd chosen well. By the time she reached her office, her lungs constricted, her heart pounded, and her breath came in short gasps. She dug in her brief case for her albuteral inhaler. She reached out and gripped the knob. The door was unlocked. A strange sensation flooded her. One that was more than just her asthma. Cold and prickling.
Milton wasn't due in for an hour. Since their offices ad-joined, she'd use his bathroom and freshen up.
Everything was just as she'd left it Friday afternoon. She threw her briefcase on her already cluttered desk and dropped into her chair. Excess heat generated by her nervous body fueled the fire burning her cheeks. She couldn't shake the dreary feeling riding her all morning. Cold, damp perspiration trickled down her temple, between her breasts and along her spine. Sweating. Yet, goose bumps covered her arms and neck. Was she coming down with a virus? She'd calm down before orientation. Cold water on her face would do the trick.
Yes, cold water and a cold heart were exactly what she needed today. Milton wouldn't get away with this. She'd confront him as soon as he arrived. But first -- she crossed to Milton's office -- some cool water was in order for her overheated face.
Andrea opened the frosted-glass door and noticed a slight rotting smell. Like a half-eaten sandwich that had lain out too long. Milton was like that, a complete slob. She walked toward the bathroom, the odor intensifying. It was horrifyingly familiar. It was death. She fought the urge to turn and run.
"What a mess!" Wrinkling her nose, she picked up some papers overflowing onto the floor knowing he only reluctantly cleaned his desk. Contrary to Medicare standards, doctors didn't do paperwork.
"I'm a physician, not a business man. Besides that's what I have you and Peter for -- Paperwork."
The only correspondence he cared about was a weekly letter from the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Something to do with his project. The institute held an international reputation for its work with AIDS and Grafton had spent considerable time in Paris studying their research methods. Andrea had planned to learn French someday, so she could decipher the weekly memo upon its arrival. Now, it didn't matter, because she'd probably be working somewhere else.
Andrea glanced around the room. Something was different. The bathroom door. He never shut it, sometimes proving embarrassing for whoever was just outside the office. She took a deep breath. Perhaps the cleaning people had shut it on Friday. Her hand touched the knob and her lungs constricted with that same maddening sensation that had haunted her all morning.
The back of her neck tingled. The smell had intensified to the point where she almost gagged. Something wasn't right. Something waited behind the door. A prowler?
She pushed it open and quickly stepped back. An overwhelming fist of stench hit her and she instinctively covered her mouth and nose. As if by remote control, her eyes and mind scanned the grisly scene.
A naked body lay draped over the stool like a slab of sliced liver.
"Milton?" A blood-stained lab coat loosely covered him.
"Oh, God, please!" She screamed and hurried forward to examine her mentor, her teacher, her friend. He was hurt. Find the site and stop the bleeding. That's what she'd been trained to do.
"Dr. Grafton?" He couldn't be alive. There was too much blood. Crusted, clotted blood. That and the putrefaction said he was dead. He'd been here too long. The air-conditioning in the Clinic Building was always turned off on weekends, and in July, Milton had literally cooked in his own juices. Her heel squished in something wet and she lurched forward. Seconds became hours. She slid towards him with outstretched hands.
Her head slammed into the stool, knocking Grafton's body forward. On top of her. Shoving her hands against his chest, her gaze focused on his face... his mouth. Dear Lord, his mouth!
A thick, dusky, raw sausage-like object protruded from his lips. Sightless brown eyes stared out at her in glazed horror.
But it was no sausage, it was a severed penis -- most probably his. Her insides flopped, keeping time with an insane undulation while she fought to push him off and regain her balance. She needed to scream, but her neck muscles were paralyzed. She gagged on the bile that rose slowly in the back of her throat.
Andrea's rubbery arms and legs flailed in the clotted mess covering the floor. So much blood. And feces. Oh, my God! Feces.
Clawing and scrambling, she grabbed for anything within her reach, something to get her the hell out of here.
Her knees burned. She had to get away. From him... it. Finally, her fingers grabbed dry carpeting and, burying them in the plush, she pulled as hard as she could and collapsed.
Andrea lay still, afraid to move. Her watch said only minutes had passed. The stench of death permeated everywhere making her a part of it, too. Everything today had been out of control. Especially since last night's dream.
Slowly, she surfaced from the terror and became aware of the complete situation and her surroundings. A voice ricocheted through her brain. The phone... get the phone.
"Yes," she whispered. "The phone. Of course." Now what?
Call the police. "Yes. Call the police."
Drawing her bloodied knees toward her chin, she rolled over and sat up. Covered with the clotted mess, she fought the urge to run screaming from the building, stripping her clothes as she ran. But doctors didn't do that. They were professionals. They handled things. They coped in a calm manner. Staggering to her feet, she reached for the phone on Grafton's desk. It slipped through her shaking, bloodied fingers. Three numbers. Can't think. Preoccupied.
Numbers -- numbers. What were the numbers? Don't panic.
Like a robot, she grabbed up the receiver again and looked blankly at the number panel. As if they had a mind of their own, her fingers punched out nine-one-one. Numbness seeped into Andrea's body.
Someone on the other end answered. She sucked in gulps of air -- praying her asthma would remain quiescent.
"T-there's been an accident. No. No...worse. Come...fast... Oh, I don't know."
"Calm down," the dispatcher's voice said. "Take a deep breath. Please. Give me your location."
"Can't breathe...I'm at DMC...asthma...I'm a doctor. DMC."
"Asthma?" the voice on the other end soothed.
"I'm sorry." She concentrated and her breathing slowed. "Dorlynd Medical Center. Faculty Clinic Building next to... to hospital. Fifth floor. Dr. Milton Grafton's Office. Hurry."
The receiver dropped from her nerveless fingers, and Andrea shrank deep into the corner. Sliding down, she hugged her knees tight and tried to control her thoughts.
This was a nightmare. Feeling awake was usually part of a nightmare. Wasn't it?
The morning hadn't seemed right from the beginning. It was all a bad dream. Soon, she'd wake up to start the day.
Moaning, she prayed it was true. "Okay, Andrea, time to wake up. Come on. Hurry up, police. Hurry. Please, God, why can't I wake up?"
Closing her eyes, she rested her head on her knees and waited.
Copyright © 1996 by Diana Kirk