First chapter where a man is wandering a hospital, lost and confused.
A persistent buzzing nagged at the back of Jared Oaks's mind. He opened bleary eyes and shied away from the light. It blazed harsh and bright, forcing him to squint. A dull ache flared to life at the back of his skull, and a groan tumbled from his lips. He gagged on the sickly sweet scent of illness and medicine. Jared lay sprawled on the tile floor of some lobby as its iciness seeped into his bones. Through the halo of the fluorescent light, he peered at his surroundings.
Panic constricted Jared's chest, squeezing the air from his lungs. His breathing became shallow as he teetered on the edge of hyperventilation. His heart thudded in his ears, each beat louder than the last. Sweat broke out on his brow, and he rubbed a shaky hand over his face to mop it up. His eyes darted around, and the green pastel walls made his head spin.
He realized, with trepidation, that he sat in a hospital lobby.
A nurse pushed an old man in a wheel chair nearby, and Jared rolled, dodging its oversized wheels. He yanked his hand to his chest, narrowly missing a shoe stepping on his fingers. He curled himself into a tight ball, and his arms covered his head. Peeking through them, his eyes roved the area. Too many people came from far too many different directions.
He crab-walked towards the corner to escape them.
Jared looked down at himself, shocked to find that he wore black dress slacks and a heavy, black leather jacket. He unzipped it to reveal a snow-white sweater. He rubbed his hand over it, relishing its softness underneath the pads of his fingers. The action slowly put him into a trance, as he was unable to remember where he had gotten it.
He rolled to his knees, preparing to stand. Dizziness overcame him, and Jared slumped over, his palms resting on the cool tile. He licked his chapped lips and swallowed the bitter bile threatening to bubble forth. The glare of the incandescent light on the snowy tile made his shadow solidify into a vibrant reflection. He blinked and scrubbed a hand over his face upon seeing it wink and grin wide---not unlike the Cheshire Cat.
“Howdy,” it said.
“I'm dreaming. I have to be,” Jared said. He buried his face in his hands, peering through splayed fingers. “I can't have normal nightmares---like clowns or midgets.”
“Nope.” His reflection drew the word out, making the letter “p” pop. It shrugged and bobbed its head as if debating something. “'Not a dream, either. Though that could be kinky.”
“What?” Jared asked, his nose wrinkling in disgust.
“I'm just saying, think of the possibilities,” his reflection said. It titled its head, and its eyes swept over him in appraisal. “I see that you're wearing the sweater Mandy gave you for Christmas. Looks good. She's right. White is your color.”
Jared's head snapped up, and his eyes swept the lobby for his little sister. He asked, “Mandy?”
Patients, doctors, nurses, and visitors mingled as they passed one another like ships in the night. They swirled around him, making his head spin. Jared blinked, fighting the sharp pain in his temples. His eyes crossed, and he shook his head to clear his vision. Once focused, he searched the crowd, hoping to spot his little sister.
Mandy was nowhere to be found.
A nurse power-walked past him, a chart clutched tightly in her small hands. She did not acknowledge him or stop.
“Hey!” Jared called out, his voice hoarse. He cleared his throat before trying again. “Help!”
The nurse disappeared around a corner and out of view.
He pushed himself to stand, wobbling on shaky legs. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the nurse's station. A nurse sat behind the desk, working on paperwork. A teetering stack of files lay piled next to her elbow. Above her hung large silver letters proclaiming the name St. Francis Hospital.
Jared stumbled towards her and slapped his palms on the counter to steady himself. He screwed his eyes shut, staving off dizziness. He said, his voice a pathetic croak, “Help me.”
“At least you're in a Catholic hospital,” his double said from the plexiglass covering the wallpaper on the nurse's station. “Wouldn't want heathens treating you, now would we?”
He wrinkled his nose and turned his attention fully on the nurse. She continued to work as if he hadn't spoken.
“Oh. That's not a good sign.” His strange counterpart shrugged. It said, its off-key voice an abrasive singsong, “She can't see you!”
Ignoring the latest taunt, he peered closer and blinked several times to clear his foggy vision. She was a petite brunette. Disney characters spilled across her scrubs haphazardly. Glancing at the front pocket, he spotted her ID card. Her fingernails clicked away as she entered patient data.
Jared slumped against the counter, it being the only thing supporting his weight. He called out, weakly, “Tessa?”
She didn't even lift her eyes from her computer screen.
“I told you that she couldn't see or hear you.” The shadowy figure wagged a finger at him. It said, “I'm leaving it up to you to figure out why.”
“Tessa, I need help. Please!” Jared begged.
She turned her back, rolling her chair towards the other end of the desk, and returned with a new file.
“Tessa seems busy. Quit pestering the poor girl,” his reflection admonished.
Jared threw his hands in the air and sighed in exasperation. Between the strange doppelganger and lack of response, it had become clear that he would not get help here. He turned and made his way down a hall, his steps unsteady and slow. His foot clipped something, and he tumbled forward. His arms windmilled, trying to find his balance. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the bright blue of a janitorial cart. A neon-yellow wet-floor sign stuck out, protruding into the walkway. He landed hard on his side and grunted. Air whooshed out of his lungs, and he wheezed, trying to catch his breath.
“Someone needs to watch where they're going---or are you just too tall to see the bright blue cart?” his counterpart asked.
Jared lifted his head and groaned. He made brief eye contact with the hazy reflection in the floor and waved a dismissive hand at it. He said, a pained lilt to his voice, “You're not helping. Just shut up already.”
His cellphone slipped from his pocket, skittering across the floor. Jared crawled after it, picking it up. In its glass, he spotted his image. He frowned, seeing a smug smirk cross its lips. Jared blinked, and shook his head. Looking again, it reflected the perturbed scowl now crossing his features. He flicked his thumb across the touchscreen, unlocking it. Relief flooded him that it hadn't been damaged. He glanced at his wallpaper, a picture of him and Mandy, taken during their summer camping trip.
They both wore sweatshirts and jeans. Mandy wore a baseball cap, her long brunette hair pulled through the back in a ponytail. His long chestnut hair hung loose around his shoulders, a few strands falling into one eye. His arm draped around his little sister's shoulders, and both flashed dimpled smiles. Mandy rested her head on his chest, her arms clasping him in a loose hug. Jared shook his head as he noticed the dusting of pink across her nose, a sunburn in its infancy. It had blossomed into full-blown peeling a few days later.
He pulled up his contact list, stopping on his sister's number. He hit the call button and placed the phone against his ear. Instead of ringing, Jared heard a distinct and unwelcome beep. Pulling the phone away, he groaned when he saw the no signal notice.
“Damn it!” He forcefully gripped the phone tight in his fist. He touched the back of his hand to his lips in thought. “I really need to get a different service provider.”
“Yeah, something tells me that the roaming fees for your current location would be astronomical,” his counterpart quipped.
Jared glanced down at the floor, his eyes meeting his reflection's. His brows crinkled in confusion, and he asked, “What on earth is that supposed to mean?”
“Boy, am I supposed to just tell you everything?” His reflection rolled its eyes. “You are dense. Think. If it's not a dream---”
Jared shoved to his feet with a grunt. He didn't want to face this. He said, “So one nurse didn't respond. Big deal.”
Another nurse shuffled by, pushing a cart. She stopped in front of a patient's room. Opening a compartment, the nurse pulled out a tray and set it down on top. A glass, cutlery wrapped in a napkin, and Jell-O appeared next. She shoveled ice into the glass and stuck a straw into it.
He staggered towards her and called out, “Help me!”
The nurse continued to stock her tray, oblivious.
“Hey!” Jared shouted. He gripped the cart's handle to steady himself. He hunched down, eye level with the nurse, and leaned over the cart. His eyes searched her face, finding no recognition. Waving a hand at her, he snapped his fingers. “I said I need help.”
The nurse pulled another glass and a jug of juice from underneath. She poured some into it and set it down in the upper corner. Next, she took out a teacup and a small teapot, steam rising from the spout. The nurse dropped a tea bag into the cup, and draped the string over the edge.
“Damn it! Why won't you help me?” Jared grabbed the tray, moving to throw it.
It didn't budge.
“What the hell?” Jared asked. He tried again, pulling with all his might. He panted from the effort, the tray immoveable. Frustrated, he shoved the cart, finding it just as fixed.“What's going on here?”
He staggered back, and tripped over his own feet. His eyes went wide with shock, and he lost his balance. His arms outstretched, fingertips brushing against the railing that jutted out from the wall. Jared grasped at it, tumbling forward. He slumped to his knees as they buckled. Glancing behind him, he saw the nurse pour the hot water into the cup.
“She---she can't see me,” Jared whispered.
“I tried to tell you,” his double replied.
He gripped the railing and pulled himself to his feet. In the tinted window above, he spotted his image. Leaning closer, he noticed that it appeared indefinite and distorted. Like a large shadow, it loomed over him, a rueful scowl ghosting across its lips. Its dark eyes met Jared's, forcing him to look away.
Jared tilted his head, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. “No one can see me because this is some horrible nightmare. I just need to wake up.”
“You just keep telling yourself that, buddy,” his reflection deadpanned.
The nurse plucked the tray from the cart and disappeared into the patient's room.
Searing pain assaulted his already frayed nerves. Something wormed around inside, trying to pick apart his brain. White hot, it boiled the blood in his veins. Intense convulsions rocked him, and unintelligible moans escaped his lips. Stomach acid bubbled, threatening to spew forth. Writhing, Jared clenched tight fists to his temples.
“Easy, tiger,” his double whispered. “This will pass.”
“What is happening to me?” He rolled to his knees and panted. In his hands, he clutched his head and winced. “My head---”
“You want the answers, you'll have to find your body.”
Sickly sweet bile rose in his throat, and he swallowed reflexively. Dread settled like a rock into the pit of his stomach. He hunched over, dry heaving. The cold hard tile under his palms felt too solid. The throbbing in his head was far too painful. All the details pointed to one irrefutable truth, one that he could no longer deny.
“Oh God---,” Jared whispered. “This---this is real. That means---”
“It's good to see you leave the river denial behind.” His reflection crossed its arms and drew its lips into a disapproving frown. “And yes. This is what you would call an out-of-body experience. You need to find your body.”
A gurney carrying a patient rattled down the hall, nearly striking Jared. He scrambled, crawling on his hands and knees towards the wall. Two male nurses pushed it past him, their expressions grim. The patient wore an oxygen mask. His arm hung in a sling, pinned to his chest, and a bandage blanketed his shoulder. He looked no older than his early twenties, his relaxed expression boyish. His short-cropped auburn hair stood up in unruly spikes on the pillow propped under his head.
With wide eyes, Jared watched them turn a corner and disappear.
“Let's hope for his sake the other guy looks worse, eh?” His reflection smirked at him from the glare on the tile.
Mustering the strength to stand, Jared hauled himself up by the railing. He panted heavily, dragging a hand through sweat dampened locks. He looked around, wondering what direction he should take. Stumbling down the hallway further into the bowels of the hospital, he began his search. He kept his eyes trained upon the white tile, unable to take the harsh fluorescent lighting any further.
Jared turned a corner, noting that the wallpaper shifted to a pastel blue. He bumped into it, sliding his hand on the railing to steady himself. His brown penny loafers attempted to find purchase on the slick tile. Shaking his head, he tried to push the panic clouding it aside. He inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled out his mouth, his cheeks puffing out each time.
At the end of the hallway, a young man struggled to walk. A woman, not much older, steadied him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. He ducked away from her, a frustrated grimace on his face. He limped heavily, his stride shaky. Each time he stumbled, his knees threatened to buckle, and each time the woman offered aid he'd refuse, swatting at her hand weakly.
“We're almost there, Henry. You can do it,” the woman's soft alto encouraged.
“Don't talk to me like I'm three years old, Beth,” Henry said through clenched teeth. He grabbed the railing tight and pulled himself along. “My back is injured, not my brain, okay?”
“This seems familiar,” his counterpart said from its perch in the glass on a patient's door. “Does this seem familiar to you?”
“Shut up.” Jared glared at it.
“Oh wait, I remember now.” It titled its head, a satisfied smirk crossing its lips. “You only played the part of Beth for what---six years?”
“I said shut up,” Jared said forcefully.
It had happened shortly after his graduation from UCLA. Their parents had traveled back home from visiting family. On the way, a distracted driver had run a stop sign at an intersection crossing the highway. He had T-Boned them, killing both instantly. Sat in the back seat, Mandy's left leg had shattered, and a nerve in her lower back had been severely pinched. Everything had happened so fast, and all Jared's plans---from graduate school to internships---had to be put on hold. Mandy, only sixteen then, had needed him, and so he had applied for legal guardianship. Between getting her through high school and the grueling rehab, it had been a difficult six years for the both of them.
“You had better get used to hearing that, Beth.” Jared snorted, observing their slow, determined walk. “And look out for that cane. He'll probably aim for the knees. Mandy always did.”
“She was a regular Tanya Harding,” his counterpart interjected.
Jared narrowed his eyes at the smug double in the glass. He asked through clenched teeth, “Excuse me?”
“Hey, just calling it like I see it.”
He moved past them, his long stride determined. He wanted to find his body and a way to get out of here. He hated hospitals. It had been nearly a year since Mandy's last rehab appointment, and he had enjoyed not seeing one during that time.
He turned a corner and bumped directly into a doctor's back. Heat rose in his cheeks, and he held up his hands in supplication. “Sorry! I wasn't watching where I was going.”
The doctor didn't react. He stood with two nurses, examining a chart. He licked a finger, turning a page. “Do I have any updates?”
Jared laughed, hysterically. “Why am I apologizing? It's not like he heard me or anything.”
“Hey, glad you said it and not me this time.” His reflection winked from the glass over a sofa painting. “My feelings were kinda hurt when you told me to shut up last time.”
“The patient is stable, sir. The bullet went cleanly through his shoulder,” a plump female nurse said. “He's being put into his room now.”
“Have either of you had any luck with notifying the next of kin?” The doctor's deep voice sounded strained and tired. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger.
Jared pushed past them, moving further down the hallway. He started to check the rooms, knowing that his body had to be in one. Most sat vacant, their beds made up neat and tidy. Looking into one, Jared saw a fragile old man resting in a bed, the guardrails up on either side. An oxygen mask aided his breathing. He wondered how the old man could sleep so peacefully in such a sterile and lonely place. He pulled away from the doorway and moved on.
“No, sir,” the male nurse replied, accepting the chart. “We'll keep calling.”
“Good.” The doctor turned away from them, walking down the hall. Over his shoulder, he said, “Let me know when you do reach them.”
The doctor breezed into a patient's room, and closed the door behind him.
The hallways all began to look the same. Jared turned another corner, and the wallpaper transitioned to a soft rose. The hospital morphed into a convoluted pastel maze. Scanning the walls, he tried to spot a directory.
Upon not seeing one, Jared clasped his hands behind his head, and groaned in frustration. “Aw, come on!”
“You're a lot closer than you think.” The haze of his reflection peeked at him from the glass over a painting depicting a serene meadow. “Just keep following this hallway.”
“Why should I listen to you? You've been nothing but rude,” Jared snapped.
“Hey, you want to find your body---and Mandy,” it replied. “I'm just telling you that you're on the right track.”
“You better not be lying.” Jared scowled. He shook his head and cast his eyes towards the ceiling. “Oh man. I have to be losing it if I'm having a conversation with my reflection!”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and continued down the hall. Eventually, he'd come across the ICU. He ascertained that it would be the most likely place to find his body.
He stopped in front of a statue of St. Francis, noting the Latin inscription. Jared read it aloud, the ancient language flowing off his tongue with ease, “Benedicat tibi Domninus, et custoidat te; ostendat faciem suam tibi et misereatur tui. Convertat vultum suum ad te et det tibi pacem. Amen.”
“Your sister is right. You are a huge nerd. Only you would read the Latin inscription aloud---with perfect diction. You're such a medievalist.” In the huge cherry wood doors, his reflection stared down at him.
“I do have a degree in it, you know,” he retorted. “Like Mandy should talk. The space freak spends all her free time with that telescope of hers.”
Carved in beautiful white marble, St. Francis stood with a turtledove perched on each shoulder and an outstretched finger. A lamb nuzzled against his robes, its face cast up towards the saint in adoration. St. Francis rested his hand atop the animal's head, gazing down as if ministering to it.
Jared mused to his strange companion, “You know, this statue has its roots in Fioretti or The Little Flowers of St. Francis.”
“I'll say it again. Nerd.”
“Oh shut up.” He traced the Latin inscription with a finger and translated it into English, “The Lord bless you and keep you. May he show his face to you and show you mercy. May he give you peace. Amen.”
The wide open doors beckoned and Jared peeked inside. He realized that he had found the chapel. It stood empty. He hesitated on the threshold, debating if he should enter.
“You know better. Mandy won't be here. Don't waste your time,” his counterpart said.
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved a dismissive hand as a beautiful rosette stained glass window caught his eye. It called to him. Soft light filtering through the panes made blue, red, and green dapple across the simple white cloth draped over the altar. He stepped inside and dipped his hand into the holy water font, crossing himself out of habit.
A small candle shrine sat next to the door. Behind it hung an image of the Virgin Mary. Jared looked at the small mementos tucked between the small votive candles. A small gold cross hung on a chain, draped over one. Taped to it was the picture of a smiling boy. He read the small card aloud, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“Easy to say, harder to do,” his reflection mused. It appeared warped in the glass covering the picture of the Virgin Mary. “That's the boy killed in the hit and run, right? Shame they never caught the bastard, huh?”
“Yeah,” Jared replied. He rubbed a finger over the top of the photo. The little boy looked no older than eight, a large gap where his front teeth had yet to grow in. “Real shame.”
He turned back towards the altar. A rich emerald carpet ran down the middle of the aisle, and he walked down it. He genuflected towards the altar and entered a pew. He knelt and affixed his eyes upon the silver crucifix hung behind it. Sweet incense swirled through the air, wafting like unspoken prayers. Folding his hands in front of himself, Jared bowed his head.
“Lord, I need help. Please. I don't know what happened to me, but I'm scared. I---I don't really know what to do.” He looked up, his eyes resting on the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue flanking the altar. “All I ask is that I find my way back, and that Mandy is safe.”
Silent tears coursed down his cheeks, and his shoulders shook as he succumbed. He buried his face into his hands as keening sobs tore from his throat. Jared slumped on the kneeler, overcome. He tangled his fingers into his hair and cast his eyes towards the beamed ceiling. He blinked back salty tears. He whispered, “Oh God. I'm so scared. Please. What am I supposed to do?”
Footsteps stopped in front of the chapel. Startled, Jared turned towards the entrance. A short, older man wearing a green sweater and black dress slacks entered. He dipped his hand into the font and crossed himself. Below his Adam's apple rested his collar, marking his profession.
“Father---,” Jared whispered. He genuflected towards the altar and exited the pew. He wiped at his stray tears with the heels of his palm. “Father Elliot, I need help.”
The priest neared the altar, passing Jared without notice. He bowed low before kneeling. He crossed himself and bowed his head in deep prayer.
“Father! Please!” Jared shouted, trying to reach him.
“Padre can't hear you. You're only wasting time.” Out of the corner of his eye, Jared spotted his strange double reflected in the silver of the crucifix perched next to the altar.
Jared bowed his head in defeat and fled the chapel back to the hall. He shoved his hands into his pockets. He began to believe that he could wander these halls forever, lost. A cold draft snaked its way through his sweater, nipping at him. Glancing to his right, he saw a door open to a small enclosed courtyard.
Three statues sat in the snow. On the left stood the archangel Gabriel, blowing his Horn of Truth. His wings spread wide from his back, the feathers carved exquisitely. He wore a belted tunic and sandals. On the right stood an imposing statue of the archangel Michael, holding a broad sword aloft in his right hand and the Book of Souls in his left. His wings unfurled from his back, as if he were to take flight. His mouth hung open in a silent battle cry. He wore armor, as was his right as the leader of Heaven's Host. In the center stood St. Francis, his eyes cast heavenward and his arms spread wide.
Jared started to turn away until he noticed the small footprints leading up to the statues. He frowned, stepping into the courtyard. Rubbing his arms to keep the cold at bay, he recognized Mandy's small stride marked in the otherwise pristine snow. The left footprints all had the top imprint from her shoe and tapered off in a wide swath. Her rehab had helped her immensely, but the limp was permanent.
“So you are here, Mandy,” Jared whispered, his breath crystallizing in the frigid air.
“I'm offended. You actually think I'd lie?” his counterpart asked, its tone injured. Shadowy and indistinct, his counterpart emerged in the glass. “I told you that you were heading in the right direction.”
“I never said---,” Jared began.
A snippet of a conversation drifted towards his ears and Jared turned towards it. “Such a senseless act, and for what, a car? He's so young, too.”
“Were you there when they brought him in?” the other nurse asked.
“I was, but not near the ER. He's about the same age as----”
They disappeared around a corner, their conversation with them.
He turned down another corridor himself and spotted the imposing silver letters above. It announced Intensive Care Unit. He swallowed down his anxiety and pressed down the hall. Tragic figures lay in beds, hooked up to machines that kept them artificially alive. Some looked to be in slumber, as if put under a spell like in the fairy tales. Others were horribly burned or disfigured in some way. Beeps and trills filled the hallway with foreboding. Respirators inhaled and exhaled, the sound mechanical and cold.
None of these patients had visitors. All except for one. A small woman sat alone at a bedside, her shoulders shaking as she sobbed. She wore a large green coat, the fur-lined hood pulled up. Jared's heart ached for her, and he quietly observed her grief. The door obscured his view of the patient, but he already knew the truth.
The woman leaned forward and tenderly grasped her loved one's hand. She whispered brokenly, “Jared, can you hear me?”
Jared said, “Thank God Mandy's alright.”