In this chapter of The Sky Below a nurse tries to help the people in front of her and a lawyer makes the tough call. If you haven’t read chapters 1-4, don’t worry. You can download an eBook of the whole novella up to this point, or download individual chapters from this page.
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Kammie was beginning to wonder if she was the only nurse still alive on the floor. She could hear the groans of maybe half a dozen patients, but nobody answered them except her. She’d gotten Margie stabilized for the moment, and with Grace’s help Kammie had been able to lay her out on one of the couches in the visitor’s lounge. After crying on Kammie’s shoulder for a couple of minutes, Grace had pulled herself together enough to actually be of some use, not that Kammie could be picky.
Kammie’s brain had given up trying to provide a wider context for what was going on, choosing instead to focus only on what was in front of her. Kammie felt a familiar tension at the base of her skull, a combination of sleep deprivation, stress and too much caffeine. Still, she was happy to find that several of the nearby vending machines had spilled their contents all over the ceiling. She grabbed a couple of diet sodas and tossed one to Grace before resuming her crawl to the next room.
‘There’s no such thing as too much caffeine,’ she thought to herself.
A rumble from behind her grabbed her attention and Grace blushed as she twisted the cap back on the bottle. “Must’ve been the building settling.”
Kammie’s smile lasted for the briefest of moments, vanishing completely as she opened the door to room five. A cheap hospital bed, like the ones used for patients receiving in-home care, weighs about 450 pounds. In a hospital like this one, the average bed could weigh upwards of 700 pounds. With the head tilted up and the railings raised, a patient might be trapped if the bed fell on top of them, but they wouldn’t be crushed. But if one of the railings was lowered, or if the bed tilted to the side as it fell, then even a fall of only a few feet could be deadly.
The depression in the back of the old woman’s skull indicated it had at least been quick. Grace had been hot on Kammie’s heels, eager to help in any way she could, but Kammie held out a hand to stop her before she could get to the door. Kammie did a five-second sweep of the room with her eyes to check for any visitors or nurses, and upon finding none, silently close the door and started toward room six.
The patient in room six had been in the bathroom when everything hit, and from the looks of him hadn’t had the chance to flush away the morning’s constitutional. This at least, was nothing new. Kammie sent Grace to the closet for a fresh gown and some towels. The man was in his fifties and kept insisting he could do it himself, despite the fact he’d probably been lying there for the better part of an hour. His right collar bone was obviously bruised or broken, as even a slight graze triggered a grimace of pain across his face.
When she’d gotten him as clean as she was able to, she sat him down in one of the chairs, figuring if gravity flipped again that the chair probably wouldn’t crush him. She pressed his skin gently asking him to rate his pain from 1-10 with each touch. The bone felt solid, but the tissue around it had been badly banged up.
“I’m afraid the best I can offer you is a sling at the moment,” Kammie said sympathetically, “Grace, can you take care of that while I check on room seven?”
Grace nodded and Kammie got back on her hands and knees, relaxing her face as soon as she was out of sight of the door. It was difficult enough to maintain a cheerful and professional demeanor after a long day without all of these added excitements. Kammie genuinely did want to help people, to care for them in some of the scariest moments of their lives. She tried to make the whole thing feel safe and comforting, like a stay at a luxury hotel where your every need and desire is met. But that level of charm takes energy, and she had very little in reserve.
This was why most of her time off was spent in silence; that and it’s a bit weird to carry on a conversation with your cat.
The thought of Alomar alone in the apartment caused a brief pang of guilt in Kammie. There was plenty of dry food, but all of the water had probably spilled out onto the floor. And it was going to be a while till Kammie could spoil her with tuna again, assuming she could even get home. On the other hand, Alomar probably had landed on her feet, unlike her master, and could be pretty resourceful when she wanted to be. Several times Kammie had to replace one of the neighbor’s fish when Alomar got the craving for raw sushi.
“Ow! Dammit!” Kammie swore as he slid her hand over something thin and sharp. She pulled back instinctively, but whatever it was had already dug in deep. In the flickering dull light she could see a thin shard of glass, maybe an inch on a side, sticking out from where it had embedded itself in the fatty part of her hand.
The muscles in her hand twitched uncontrollably, sending sharp pains down her fingers and into her wrist. She rolled over onto her side holding her hand above her head. She bit the bottom part of her lip and grabbed the shard carefully with two fingers, easing it out slowly so as not to make the cut any worse. The spasms seemed to trigger with every tiny movement, and she could feel every millimeter of the shard as it slid out. The last quarter-inch slid out quickly followed by a pulse of blood that began to run down her hand. She tossed the shard away angrily and began wrapping her hand with an ace bandage she’d found in room three.
The cut bled slowly. Somehow she’d managed to avoid the artery, but from the twitching she’d definitely done some muscular and possibly nerve damage. She looked in front of her to see dozens of tiny shards from one of the blown out ceiling lights. All things considered, Kammie was fortunate she’d only gotten stuck with one of them. Still, she was probably going to need stitches to properly close the wound, something she didn’t particularly want to do herself.
‘Where the hell are the other nurses?’
She stood tentatively, holding her throbbing hand above her chest to try to slow the bleeding. Each step was careful and deliberate, moving her past her original objective of room seven in favor of the nurses’ lounge just around the corner. Even if they’d been knocked unconscious by the fall, someone should be awake by now.
‘Maybe they just can’t get out,’ she thought.
It took an age to reach the door, and another to push up on the door handle and inch the door open. No sooner had she opened the door six inches when something tore the door out of her hand. Her face was struck by a cool breeze which kicked up the dust and debris around her in a low cloud.
The hospital had been surprisingly generous with its nursing staff. One of the few reasons Kammie spent any time in nurses’ lounge at all was the sky light and floor-to-ceiling windows which featured a great view of downtown. Glass was a funny thing. This building was built to withstand the worst tornadoes and snowy conditions with barely a scratch. But drop a half dozen chairs and a couch on that ceiling, and you’ve got yourself a big gaping hole.
Kammie stared at the hole blankly for a few seconds, then picked up a length of metal framing from the ceiling, bent the end into a hook using her thigh, and pulled the door closed.
* * *
“I have half a mind to sue this place,” Claudia said as she and Bethany dug through cabinets and drawers searching for a first aid kit. “I can understand not having the materials for a splint. I mean, who’s going to break their ankle making donuts, but I can’t even find a damn band-aid!”
Jared was still hazy. He obviously had some kind of a concussion but neither Bethany nor Claudia had any idea how to deal with it other than to try and keep him awake. This proved difficult as Jared seemed to be making every effort to disconnect from reality.
“There’s got to be something out in the mall,” Bethany offered. “They should have a first aid station somewhere.”
“You’re right, though if I remember correctly it’s on the first floor, which is a couple of levels above us now.”
The elevators, assuming they were even working at this point, were glass encased prisms with no floor. The escalators were out as well, unless Bethany could piton her way up through every groove. She vaguely remembered falling off halfway across the monkey bars as a kid. There the worst possible outcome was a few splinters. Here there was no telling how far she’d keep falling if she lost her grip.
Bethany shook her head, “Even if we could get up there, there’s no way we could get Jared up in his current state. What about service stairwells?”
Claudia shrugged, “Someone on the maintenance staff might know. Me, I go in and out the front door just like you. I don’t even use the employee parking, I take the RTA.”
Absently Bethany pressed the call button on her phone, hanging up and trying again as soon as she heard the three-tone alert message.
“You’re just going to drain the battery doing that. The system’ll probably be down for hours,” Claudia offered.
Even as she pressed the call button again, Bethany knew she was right. Why hadn’t she picked up the phone in the first place? What was so important about a damn cup of coffee?
Frustrated she slammed one of the cabinets shut, the force tearing the door off of one of its hinges, leaving it swinging loosely from the other. Claudia assessed the damage with a raised eyebrow.
“Good a solution as any I guess,” she said, tearing the rest of the door away from the cabinet. She put her foot on the seat of one of the plastic chairs and slammed the board down hard against the back. The board cracked and split, and after a couple more whacks broke into two roughly even pieces.
“Hand me some of those uniforms from the back closet over there. We’ll wrap these so Jared doesn’t get tetanus, and use whatever fabric we’ve got left to tie them together.”
The splint was crude but succeeded in keeping Jared’s leg straight, though Bethany had to snap some loose shards of wood so he could put his foot down on the floor.
“He’s still not going anywhere for a little while,” Claudia said. “We might as well see what else we can…”
The sound of gunfire is distinctive. Most lower caliber hand guns don’t set off the loud boom that everyone expects. The real noise is closer to a balloon popping, which in some ways is more frightening. Gunfire sounds more innocuous than it is.
“What the hell is going on out there?” Claudia whispered angrily.
The shots were soon followed by the sound of smashed glass and angry yelling.
“C’mon,” Claudia gestured, crouching low.
With the counter above them, the front of the store offered little in the way of cover. Their only real protection was the fact that a donut shop wasn’t usually the first on anyone’s list when it came to looting.
The shouting was clearly coming from their floor. Claudia and Bethany moved slowly across the aisle and up to the corner. If they were caught, Bethany didn’t have much of a plan beyond screaming, as running back to the donut shop offered fleeting safety at best.
Bethany leaned her head around the corner, then quickly pulled it back, burying her head as close to the wall as possible.
“What do you see?”
Bethany didn’t want to answer and just kept trying to bury herself in the wall. Claudia pushed her back gently and took her own quick look before pulling back as well.
Lying half out of the store window was a young man wearing a store manager’s uniform. He had a thick mustache and was wearing a tie and a whistle like the high-school coaches in movies from the 80‘s and 90‘s. His eyes were open and glassy. Most of his forehead and temples were covered in blood from a deluge of small cuts from the window, and one or several large blows to the head. His chest was dark crimson, the material too wet with blood to show any wound.
Bethany had regained some of her composure just as Claudia was losing hers, “Did you know him?”
Claudia brushed a tear away with her hand and spoke in a whisper, “Not really. I saw him around. He usually liked Boston creams, though who doesn’t like a bit of custard?”
Bethany shook her head, “Sporting goods store, that’s surprisingly smart for a mob mentality. That place has the climbing equipment to get out of the mall and to anywhere else you might need to go. From their attitude toward the store manager I doubt they’ll be too willing to share with us, though.”
“What do we do now?” Claudia asked.
“We’ve got to get out here before those goons start sweeping the rest of this floor. Maybe the emergency exits will work.”
“But what about Jared? There’s no way we can bring him with us,” Claudia said.
Often Bethany suspected that the people around her knew the answers to their own questions, but needed her to say the answer anyway. Her parents were getting a divorce, but they looked to her to make sure they were doing it right. Grace kept fighting with nurses and doctors, but all the while she was waiting for Bethany to say it was okay to let go.
“We have to leave him, at least for now,” Bethany said. “Maybe since he’s hurt they’ll leave him alone.”
Claudia clearly wanted to object. It was part of the social contract of being an uncaring heartless pragmatist that other people get to yell at you about it, before ultimately going along with your plan. Claudia seemed too drained at the moment to care.
“You’re probably right. We can come back down and check on him once we’ve found some supplies and these gangbangers have taken off.”
It was unlikely they were ever coming back to this store again, but if it helped the fiction of their reason for leaving, then that was alright.
Bethany dialed her sister one last time. When again she heard the three-tone message, she held the power button down to turn off the phone.
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Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube