by Matt Shaner
In medical school they tell you about them, the Shadows: men or women who hang around emergency rooms just to feed off the experience. These people can be young or old, they are any race, and they will go to great lengths to not get caught. It was five years before I ran into my first.
You learn to exist around death. You learn to accept it. You learn to identify the emotions that it carries and, just by sight, you begin to know who will be hit the hardest.
In the back, by the monitoring station, a betting pool is run as to the number of deaths each night. Go ahead, next time you find yourself inside an emergency room, look somewhere near a nondescript wall.
Technically it is illegal, so the spreadsheet is masked with some fake title but it will be there. The beds are listed on one side, the docs on the top. The winning doc and number of deaths gets any money collected and, with doctors involved, I’ve seen pots as large as five thousand dollars get handed out on a typical urban weekend.
This night I’m leading the pool, and I’m an hour away from ending my twenty-seven hour shift. An accident victim is wheeled in around seven in the morning. The victim is a child, around ten years old. The family says he was hit at the bus stop, and I see the mask of death already on his face when the gurney comes to a stop in my bay. This would put me over the top.
The nurses scramble around the room. I lead them in the usual procedures and, after what seems like an eternity of trying, the boy still doesn’t wake up and we “call” him. I go to the locker room, get changed, collect my winnings at the desk and walk to the parking lot. Before my face is blasted with the cold morning air, I look into the waiting room and, sitting in the corner is my first Shadow.
That morning I do not think anything of it, and it takes an entire week for him to reappear. This night is a Saturday, and the local college kids are drunk and causing every kind of minor injury one could create. I walk a wasted guy out to his buddies in the waiting room and, reading a magazine, is the Shadow. His dress is the same, dull and unremarkable. He reads the magazine. No one sits around him and I return inside.
I walk around to the receptionist and ask her how long the guy has been there, and she says she doesn’t know. She says that when her shift changed, he was there. I ask her how long ago that was and she says, “Four hours.”
I walk back to the charts and quickly time patients from their admission. We had no one on a four-hour stay. When I get up to confront him, I swing open the door and he is gone.
Two nights later he is back. I am talking to an elderly woman and telling her how her husband will be fine after a rest and the guy walks in and takes the same seat in the corner. This time, rather than being alone, a family is gathered five feet away. The mother is sobbing. The father hugs her. The one son is sitting with his head down. Their daughter is being worked up in the morgue, after dying from a successful suicide attempt.
I walk inside and go over to reception, and the same nurse is there. Before I speak she looks up from her tabloid magazine and says, “He just got here.”
“I know,” I tell her. “I just need to see something.”
“You want me to call security?” she asks.
“Not yet. You on all night?”
“Till lunch tomorrow, honey.”
“Perfect. Keep an eye on him. Let me know how long he stays.”
She says she will and I look and use my doctor’s eyes to really look.
The guy’s face is down in a magazine. His eyes, deep eyes, are on the family. He stares. He stares, and I see the faint wisp of a smile on his face. His hands shift on the magazine, and for a second my mind plays a trick on me. I see him as ancient. I see him as immortal. I see him and the black that hovers over all pain and suffering here. And then I realize he is only human, and I back off and go to the patients.
The next night he is there again. His dress is better. He looks a little younger and newer. I, on the other hand, am a little the worse for wear. The shift ended only four hours ago and, because of a multi-car accident and three of my co-workers on vacation, I am back. The lack of sleep burns into my eyes. The clothes fit loose over my shoulders. The coffee I have from the break room is horrid and stale and wakes me up. I walk into the full trauma bay and the perfect chaos of the moment.
We end up losing all but one of the people. We gather at reception and, being the newest of the crew, I am nominated to separate things for the families, so I grab charts and walk through the doors. I get hit with a wall of sound and activity.
People are crying, more like wailing, while I look over everyone and start to call out names. They organize into groups and I start to talk to them one at a time. I’m finishing when a streak moves from the corner of my eye, and I look. He is not in his seat. I turn my back, and the door to reception is swinging shut. I run inside.
I ask reception if they noticed anyone coming through here and they say no. I run around the half horseshoe of beds and he is at the last one. He is bent over the final survivor, and I yell for security. I go to corner him and the man on the bed codes out. In the rush of security and help, the Shadow vanishes.
I sit in the lounge later and talk with security. I tell them everything and they say that, next time he comes back, to call them instantly and lock down the area. They may have a suspect in a death, they say, and I tell them that he did not touch the guy before he coded. He was just looking. They tell me they want to talk to him anyway and I agree.
After a full sleep I am rested, and I go in ready for anything the night would throw at me. The next night is during the week and should be slow. It is painfully slow.
We are playing trashcan basketball when I am told that there is something I need to see in the waiting area. I go out there and when I open the door, I hear a faint scratching against the restroom door that sits to the right of the waiting area. No one is in the room. That’s odd. My curiosity is piqued.
The scratching rises to a solid banging. I jump and slowly make my way to the door. As I open it, a fellow doctor lunges out wearing a mask and grabs me. We laugh and wrestle and I smile to see everyone standing at the reception window pointing at us and laughing. We all go back inside to our nothingness.
Emergency rooms are also equipped with a sound to denote anyone coming and going from the room. This sound, on some nights, is endless and it takes a lot of concentration to block it out. Right when we settle back to the games, the noise dings. I look up.
Everyone makes their sounds and catcalls, daring me to look out into the room. The receptionist is not at her seat and, despite her laughing, I notice she is in no hurry to look. I tell them that I will not accept their taunts, and I walk out to the door.
I open it, not bothering to look out the glass and make the biggest mistake of my life so far. He is standing at the exit. He looks at me, grimaces, and runs. I yell to call security and I give chase. I run into the parking lot.
The parking lot is a handful of rows and lit at the ends by large white lights. I start walking the rows, and I do not hear the usual commotion of security behind me. I keep walking farther away from the building. My gut tells me no, but I continue and I know he is somewhere in the night.
I reach the last row, where the lot borders the trees and the exit. I hear a noise and walk down the exit to the row of dumpsters at the end. The rustle of security is finally coming from behind me and it gives me confidence.
I run towards the dumpsters and, as I turn the corner, a hand grips my neck. It is ice cold. The eyes I see in the darkness are red hot. They burn into my soul. The face leans in close and the features are no longer human. The voice is a hiss. Sound stops. Time stops. The moment stays still.
“Remember why you are here. I will keep checking up on you, doctor.”
The moment starts again and security runs around to my location. They catch me as I pass out.
I wake in the same hospital, now a patient. My co-workers are laughing at me and I tell them I slipped and hit my head. In two days I am back to normal and working. I still see him, my Shadow, every now and then. When I deal with tragedy, I do not feel bad anymore. I do not regret. I do not get sad.
I have met with Death himself. He watches over this hospital and, with each loss, he is only doing his job. I keep doing mine, and we work together knowing that some day he will be there to take me, and I’ll have my rematch from the parking lot.
I’ve pulled others from his hands. When my time comes, he’ll be in for the fight of his life.
Copyright © 2008 by Matt Shaner