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Two Blind Men and a Fool

by Sherman Smith

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Chapter 26: Too Late

part 1 of 2

I’m going to regret this, Stella thought, as she gave Mann’s secretary a conspiratorial wink and a smile. The secretary, with pursed lips, tried to ignore her boss’s ravings from the next room.

Once out in the hall, momentarily free of bullies or curious eyes, Stella braced her back against a wall, as if by physical force she could take back her reckless response to the administrator. She listened to Mann’s rants, it was becoming abundantly clear that the man was mentally unbalanced. How could she abandon her patients to someone like him, to Elroy?

Her hands shook as she took a deep draw on her cigarette, closed her eyes, and tried not to think about the future. As much as she hated to admit it, jobs were hard to come by, and she needed this one. She thought of the prior night, the time she had spent with her three grand men with their simple mastery of making the moment count for something special. If only she could grab a small handful of their stardust and just hold on to it.

Her cigarette finished, she gave in and let the wall push her away. Right now she needed to see if there was anything she could do for Brooks. She had heard that Ivory had gone back to Oak Knoll. Brooks, left alone to fend for himself, in his frame of mind, was a suicide waiting to happen.

“Elroy, get in here!” Mann continued to rage.

After what Elroy had done to Earl, to too many others, and had tried to do to her, she more than despised the rodent; she loathed him, and wanted to see him squeal and twist in agony like a rat caught in a trap. But this rat had very sharp teeth and was dangerously cunning.

Fired or not, Stella had to stand her ground. She stretched her neck and shoulders and pushed open the stairwell door without looking back. The sound of her own footsteps in the empty stairwell sounded distant and foreign as she made her way towards the cavernous wards where the patients waited for care promised and rarely delivered.

The hospital seemed strangely silent, if not troubled. There was an unsavory stench, different from the smell of disease and corruption that she was used to. Something had changed in the few days she had been gone: too many of the patients were sleeping restlessly at the time of day when they were encouraged to rise, stretch, chat, play a game of cards, or work a puzzle. Staff? None to be seen.

The same was true of the second ward.

The day room was marked off-limits for patient use: STAFF ONLY. She pushed the unlocked door open. The room was bare-cupboard empty except for a mouse that scurried into the shadows at her intrusion. The music that had echoed from this room brought hope where there had been none; now the silence was oppressive.

She peeked into the staff lounge, where she found two orderlies staring at a checkerboard, coffee cups cold, empty, and stained. She noted the lockers on the far wall, five with doors open, empty, except one with a half-eaten sandwich lying open on its paper wrapper. “Simon, Alex,” she demanded, “what the hell is going on here? This place looks and smells like the inside of a flophouse.”

Neither man moved, neither spoke.

“Simon, answer me,” she commanded.

Alex reached nervously for his coffee cup, pushed it away, then made an unconscious move on the checker board, which would cost him two pieces if Simon was paying any attention.

“Don’t ignore me!” She grabbed Alex’s cup and sniffed. Now she recognized the smell that permeated the room as that of men whose pores were clogged with poisons needing to be sweated out. The tell-tale stench the morning after a bad Saturday night.

Alcohol. Moonshine. It was the same unpleasant odor she had found in the wards. The hospital reeked of it. “My God, you’re drunk?” She threw the cup across the room where it shattered with a loud crash. “Damn you! These men need you.” Her arm swung up wildly, hand pointing out towards the wards. “How could you do this?” She cleared the checker board with one angry swipe of her arm.

Alex, his eyes bloodshot and rheumy, lowered his head in shame, his hand shook as he tried to reach out for her. “Stella, we thought you were fired like all the others. Elroy, he... he said we could stay on as long as we stayed out of the way. We don’t have no choice. You know how mean Elroy can get. He’s a mean son-of-a-bitch, pardon my French.”

“We were stupid,” Simon interrupted defensively. “We got into a card game with him, now we owe him big bucks.”

The crack of her hand across his face was loud, her palm stung painfully, as she readied to strike him again. She saw crimson blood appear at the corner of his mouth. She withdrew her hand as Simon brought his hands up to his face in shame and wept.

It dawned on her that she had not seen anyone working in the wards. “Everyone else? Fired? No.” Stella raged as she found the coffeepot, added new grounds on top of old, filled it with water, then slammed it down on a hot burner. “Drink this, all of it,” she ordered. “Take a hot shower with plenty of soap, then report to me out in the wards in half an hour.”

She almost gagged on their putrid breath as she leaned in close and looked Alex and then Simon directly in their eyes. She said. “You think Elroy is a scary guy. You never know what he’s going to do, or how far he’ll go. If you are not scared of Elroy, you ought to be, but you had better be terrified of me. Now, move it!” She could feel her own heart race, Elroy was a scary guy, and she was a little more than scared.

Stella walked cautiously in the empty corridor, her soft footsteps disturbingly loud. Herbert Mann was unstable and mad as hell. He would send Elroy after her; not that he needed to: Elroy would come on his own.

If she were smart, she would leave the hospital posthaste, but she couldn’t, because from what she could see, most of the staff had abandoned a sinking ship, leaving no life rafts for the patients.

Sudden movement made her heart jump.

“Stella, thank God. I was beginning to think there were only madmen left to run this charnel house.” It was Irene’s voice. She was coming out of a ward with a messy bedpan in hand. She was the image of exhaustion; her slumped shoulders seemed to have aged her a decade in little less than a week’s time.

Stella took the bedpan from her and set it on an empty gurney nearby. She didn’t have to ask: Irene was a Quaker and not one to tipple, let alone take refuge in strong drink.

Irene, a petite nurse, ten years older than Stella, began to shake as tears formed in her eyes. Stella took her in her arms and gave her a reassuring embrace. After a long moment, Irene pulled back, swept back a lock of unruly hair from her forehead, and feigned a smile. “I thought I was the last...”

“The last?’ Stella asked.

“To take care of our patients. No one else showed up for this shift except for Simon and Alex and me, and I haven’t seen them in hours. I suppose they’re drunk like everyone else.” Irene looked around hopelessly. “Everyone, except me. Father always said the devil was in the brew.”

She looked painfully back into the ward. “The doctors are gone too, except for Doctor Garrity.” She lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “The Doctor, he’s been drinking, like he always does. The poor man’s hands shake so, he shouldn’t be allowed in an operating room anymore.” The concern in her eyes was palpable.

“I honestly don’t know who is tending to any of the patients. This is my third shift. In the last couple of hours the only one I’ve seen, besides you, is Elroy.” She searched up and down the hall, her eyes wide.

“He killed them, Elroy I mean, just as if he had put a gun to their heads. He’s poisoning them with the devil’s brew he’s making from a still he has somewhere in the basement. I tried to stop him, all he did was laugh.” Her eyes fluttered, then closed as she slumped from sheer exhaustion.

Stella caught her and eased her onto an empty bed just inside the ward.

Elroy’s heavy steps echoed, as he bounded down the steps in search of her. The stairwell door burst open. “Stella, don’t mess with me!” He was angry and sounded over the edge.

Stella stepped back against the wall as he leaned halfway through the doorway, scanned the ward, saw Irene, then scurried to the next ward in search of her. “Stella!”

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Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith

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