There was no hope in the pandemic so long as he lay dreaming!
|"Dr. Kircher is asking to take charge of the new patient," the orderly said as he thrust the clipboard at Dr. Murchison.
"We have ten new patients a day," the hospital's new administrator retorted. He smiled as he spoke, though. A busy sanitarium was not a delight, exactly, but the challenge of running it definitely was. He squinted at the blotchy names on the release form. "Which is this one?"
"Room 1313. Catatonia."
"Interesting case? Then Kircher can have it." Murchison scrawled his name across the release. He got a cold feeling in his heart as he did so. Kircher, he murmured to himself. He knew the name but couldn't place it. Must be one of the new men, brought in from out of town to help handle the pandemic.
They were all new men, it seemed like. Murchison was vaguely aware that he hadn't seen a familiar face all day.
He almost stopped the orderly as the man turned away, for he was dusky and Murchison had an impression of soot. But a gurney—another one with the sheet drawn up over the face—rattled between them, pushed along by another orderly. The whitewashed corridors fairly echoed with gurneys these days; the steady influx of patients would have long ago overwhelmed the staff had it not been balanced by an equally steady outflow of corpses.
He should feel more concern, a more humanitarian spirit, Murchison reminded himself as he strode back toward his office. But he couldn't help rubbing his hands and humming. The pandemic would make him. He would be remembered as "the necessary man," who had met and not been broken by the mysterious sickness now surging across the county and state. He'd been preparing for a crisis like this his whole life, and when the hospital board passed him over in favor of Dr. Sanderson—
He was in the act of lifting a folder off his desk when a slip of loose paper fluttered from his desk to the floor. Murchison picked it up, then in a fright shoved it into his pocket. I thought I burned that! It would never do to let anyone see the pentagrams and runes scrawled across it!
The radiator banged and grumbled to life, and Murchison wiped his brow as the room grew very warm.
And he had burned it, he was sure had. Burning it was part of the ceremony. It had worked, too, for only six hours later he had come on duty to find Sanderson laid out on a bed, burning away with a fever that the rest of the staff declared medically impossible.
Which was when the board came to him, as they should have at the start. Just as Kircher had promised him—
Murchison jumped at the coincidence of names: the new doctor, and the old carny who had sold him the charm and instructions on its use.
Well, probably it isn't as uncommon a name as it appears, he assured himself. Nerves are the last thing to indulge in a crisis.
But only an hour later, as he was striding down a corridor, out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a figure through a doorway. He wheeled in mid-stride. It had been a cowled figure, hunched over a patient, and over its face and mouth (he thought) it wore a horn-like mask, such as medieval doctors wore in times of plague, giving them the face of a monstrous bird. A carrion bird, Murchison thought in a sweat. Like a carrion bird, the figure had been pecking at the patient's guts.
He hurried back to look into the room. It was deserted. Even the bed was empty, though it was sprinkled with blood the last patient had coughed up. He grabbed a passing nurse. "Get that mess laundered," he ordered.
I've been up for twenty-four hours, he reminded himself. Don't let it be hallucinations.
Twelve hours later he was still on his feet. He'd ordered some food up, but it had the stench of the sickroom on it and he'd sent it away. The weather aggravated his irritation, as an unending rain lashed the windows from a twilight sky.
And where were Edwards, and Philips, and Stevenson, and the others? Not once had he seen them, or any staff he recognized. The ones on duty, who pressed him for medicines that were running low, and to report on linens that were being shredded for bandages, all had a low, sly, cunning look to them, and he had the impression they were laughing at him behind his back.
"Where's Dr. Kircher?" he demanded at last. It was the only physician whose name he could grasp. "What the deuce is so fascinating about the patient in Room 1313?" he roared on being told that's where the new physician was.
A minute later he rapped on the door and entered.
The attending physician was bending over a bed, and Murchison froze as he looked up. He wore a white lab gown, but there was no mistaking the face. It was the old carny.
"Ah," Kircher said. "Come to see the famous patient at last?"
Numbly, Murchison stepped forward to gaze down in astonishment at the man lying in the bed. His face was pale and drawn, and his eyes darted beneath their lids. But his breathing was deep and slow with sleep.
"What is this?" Murchison gasped. "What did you do to him?"
"'Him'?" Kircher echoed with malign amusement. "Nothing. He is only dreaming. Dreaming that he's the new hospital administrator. He was, you see, not very specific about how he was to get the job." A chuckle bubbled out of him. "I hope he's enjoying himself."
Murchison bent over the bed, and grasped the patient with gnarled, trembling hands.
"Wake up!" he screamed at himself, but his eyes only continued to dart about under their lids, even as he felt his own rolling in their sockets. "Wake up, damn you!"
Writing prompt: "See what happens to a man who finds a land of terror inside his own mind!"