Well, better late than never. Finished the last edits on my lunch break, so the eBook versions will be up a little later today. The next installment, Chapter 10, will probably be in three weeks as well since I need to spend next week writing a sermon on the book of Joel. That’s a pretty good apocalyptic book as well, though in that case with millions of locusts.
“That’s surprisingly good,” Reverend Marcado said, biting his bottom lip after taking a sip from bottle number two. “I’m surprised this stuff lasted this long with all the boozers in this church.”
“Probably used to be a lot more where these came from,” the young man added, taking the bottle gratefully from Marcado. He took a long swig, brushed his lip and offered the bottle back to the father. Marcado accepted the outstretched bottle and took another long drink. He could feel the last little bit of liquid sloshing around in the end of the bottle and had to push down the temptation to finish it off. Even a drunk has a sense of fairness.
“I knew they were holding out on me,” he said, lowering the bottle and looking at it. “I mean, I did tell them I was an alcoholic, but you’d think they’d at least offer me a sip of the really good stuff. I mean, I can understand keeping a man from drinking the crap wines or Budweisers of the world. But this is some really good shit.”
“There’s no justice,” the young man said, “though I wouldn’t have pictured you for much of a drinker.”
“Well, isn’t that the way? We preachers are expected to know nothing about anything. It’s only the really pious bastards who say they know something about God without knowing anything of the world. Wouldn’t you think it’s the ones who’ve sinned a bit who’d have something to really say about sinning?”
“You’re probably right.”
“Of course I am. We all know that sin is bad even if all we say is that it doesn’t make us very happy. But we don’t listen to people who haven’t been through the same things we have, seen the world the way we see it. We want to, but we don’t. Only a man who knows what sin is can appreciate forgiveness.”
Marcado handed over the last sip, which the young man quickly knocked back before opening bottle number three.
“Take women for example. That’s something else we preachers are supposed to know nothing about right?”
“But aren’t you not supposed to have sex?”
“That’s a common misconception. That’s only certain denominations. My faith has always been okay with sex, since before I was preacher. I’ve got a wife and two kids, and I didn’t get them by immaculate conception if you catch my drift. I know a thing or two about women.”
“By my count at least two things,” the young man said, laughing and handing over the new bottle.
“People think I know nothing about sex just because I wear a collar and some baggy black robes. Those are just clothes. It’s you lot who make them holy. God doesn’t give a damn about the kind of stuff we wear. It’s not in the Bible that I’m supposed to dress a certain way, or keep myself from carnal knowledge. God made the pleasures of the world after all. It’s the uptight Christian assholes who make it a sin just to enjoy God’s design.”
“Is that how you met your wife, ‘by enjoying the pleasures of God’s design?’”
Marcado chuckled, “Sort of. I was in a bar near the seminary. The seminary was in a dry town, but there was a wet one just a couple of miles to the south. My friends and I used to go down there, trying to test our virtue against temptation as it were. The really wise man, he avoids temptation like the plague. God gives us the tools to combat sin if we ever actually encounter it, but you’re not supposed to go seeking it out. The devil is someone you can defeat if he happens upon you, but trying to go out and fight him yourself is still a pretty stupid idea.”
“Anyway, we were at this bar having a few when this really incredible woman walks through the door. I mean Eve to our Adam, like nothing we’d ever seen before. She sits next to us because that’s the safe place to be. I mean, who thinks a couple of divinity students are going to chat you up and try to take you back to the seminary, right? On the other hand some women like the forbidden fruit angle. They want to try and get us future priests to do something we’re not supposed to do.”
“Turns out the rest of my friends were better Christian soldiers than I was. I wanted to see exactly how far she’d go to try and take me off the straight and narrow. It might’ve looked like I was ignoring her, looking straight ahead while a beautiful woman straddles me and nibbles my neck. But she knew where it counted exactly what my priorities were. The body can’t lie about the way it’s feeling, no matter how much the mind might want it to.”
“This whole dance takes nine, maybe ten rounds of drinks. At some point I black out and wake up back in the dormitories alone. Now I’ve got confessional that morning, and not a lot of time to ask questions, so I throw on my clothes and run to church. All the while my head is pounding, my stomach is threatening to empty its contents and my brain keeps giving me hazy flashes of images and sensations.”
“I was sitting quietly in the box, hoping nobody would come by so I could be alone with my thoughts and my headache when I heard the door creaking. It didn’t take long for me to realize it was her. My memory of the evening and its specifics may have been hazy, but no one could have forgotten that voice. She had no idea I was behind the screen, and it took me a while to really focus on what she was saying. When I did I realized she was relaying the events of the previous evening, in every exquisite and gruesome detail.”
Marcado’s hands went to his throat, “I could barely breathe. It felt like I was still deep-down drunk, where you can’t feel anything but the faintest of sensations, and you have to press down extra hard to be sure you can even feel your own body. I don’t know how long she talked, but suddenly she said something that grabbed my attention. I pulled the screen aside, leaned forward and exclaimed for all the empty church to hear, ‘We did what?!’”
“What happened then?” the young man said, rapped with attention.
Marcado took a long sip and tilted his head back. “I think she slapped me. Or kissed me. Or both. Either way I got a second date, and then another. And the rest is history.”
* * *
One of the hardest things about being hit by a patient is resisting the urge to hit back. Patients hit you for a couple of reasons. Usually, it’s because something hurts, and the attack is an involuntary attempt to fight off that hurt. Occasionally, a patient becomes scared. There are so many tubes and wires connected to them that they just want them all out. Patients can even be scared by the bad things happening around them, like a whole building being upside down for instance.
But some patients are just assholes.
“Get your damn n—– hands off me!”
Kammie and Frank were struggling with an irate Mr. Deckland Thomas, trying to save his life despite his best efforts to convince them it wasn’t worth the trouble. The few stretchers they’d managed to round up didn’t have restraints, so they had to improvise. Patients were being wrapped tightly in sheets, then secured to the stretcher with duct tape. Right now Kammie was thinking about how much better the rest of her day would be if she put a piece of tape over Deckland’s mouth.
“Think about it this way, Mr. Thomas,” Frank said as he grabbed the squirming man by the forearms. “Most of your fellow racists lived in the southern states where there are a lot of open spaces. If you want to keep mindless bigotry alive you might want to stop struggling and let us help you.”
Whether it was Frank’s words or the fact that he’d slammed Deckland down hard enough to knock the wind out of him, the man had at least stopped struggling long enough for Kammie to do her job. Professionalism kept her from wrapping him tight enough to cut off circulation, but not from allowing the duct tape to stick to the hair on Deckland’s arms and legs.
With the stairwell inverted there were no guardrails to keep them from a careless step, only a thin lip of metal a couple of inches high. Grace had hopped down into the entryway to help the patients with IV’s start the climb. In an ideal world these people would have been carried instead of being forced to climb, but Kammie simply didn’t have enough hands.
Ten patients were able-bodied enough to help, though most had sustained some sort of shoulder or head injury when the world went topsy-turvy. Frank had stitched her hand up as best he could, but it was still going to hurt like ten hells to lift anybody. Counting herself and Frank they could carry six beds at a time, meaning they needed to leave two people behind for the next trip.
Frank had suggested they draw straws for the two people who would have to wait, but Kammie shook her head. This was a triage situation like any other. Kammie moved over to Margie’s side where she was still laid out on a couch waiting for a stretcher. Her breathing was slow, but steadier. Pulse was still low, however, and she was unresponsive as Kammie took her hand.
Like it or not there were people with a better chance of survival than Margie. And the shaking seemed to have eased for the moment, so there was really no reason to believe they wouldn’t be back for her. Kammie gave Margie’s hand a squeeze, kissed her on the forehead, then moved on to the next patient.
With the help of the other patients they had eight mummies in the space of about twenty minutes. Margie and Mrs. Rosen, who was in a coma, were laid out in the lounge all set to travel. Frank put a reassuring hand on Kammie’s shoulder. “We’ll get the others up three flights then come back for these two.”
He gestured to the two nearest helpers. “Barry and … I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name?”
A stocky woman in her mid-thirties replied, “Frieda.”
“Frieda, right. You two up for coming back down with us?”
“Depends,” Barry said, “Can you take it out of my bill?”
Frank laughed, “Friend, somehow I think this stay is on the house.”
The patients who were carrying stretchers jumped down two at a time, grabbing people as Frank and Kammie slid them out. Movement was slow, as the people at the front of each pair were being asked to walk upside-down and backwards.
“Feel each step with the back of your heel and just move nice and easy,” Frank called out from the back of the line. “You guys facing forward be careful not to push your partner backwards.”
“Make sure you can make it the next floor before starting each flight of stairs,” Kammie added. “If you need to take a break, wait till you are on flat ground and move off to the side. Don’t be tough or in a hurry. It’s better to take a five minute break then to get the rest of us stuck in the middle of a climb.”
The stairwell was hot and everyone was breathing heavily. Several pairs heeded Kammie’s instructions and moved over for a breather after the first set of stairs, though most were eager to press on. The rumble which had died down was starting up again. A couple of patients gasped as the floor began shaking beneath their feet. The only earthquakes Ohio had ever experienced in recent memory were due to hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania, and those had been pretty mild. This shaking on the other hand was getting everyone’s complete attention.
“It’s alright,” Frank called out. “Let’s just keep moving nice and easy.”
But the rumbling wasn’t stopping. It started as a small vibration, like your feet waking up after they’ve been asleep. Rumbling turned to shaking. Shaking turned to rocking. And rocking turned to thundering. Kammie caught the flicker of a blue hospital gown before she heard the scream. It happened too fast for her to see who it was, or to do anything but watch.
“Hug the wall!” Frank shouted.
The world was falling around her. The building was shaking so violently that it was impossible to tell if they were even still attached to the ground above. Kammie tried to stay as far away from the edge, but the walls kept leaping out as if to knock her off balance. There were more screams, one of which was probably hers.
Miraculously the shaking stopped almost as quickly as it had begun. But something was wrong. The air was suddenly cooler than it had been a moment ago. The space that had been cramped and hot was now open and airy. Kammie was simultaneously grateful for the relief, and apprehensive about its cause. She didn’t dare lean too far, for fear of spilling her charge over the side, but she had to know.
The stairs went down for a flight below them, then abruptly cut off into perfect blue sky. She imagined if she stared down she could see the shadow of the top of the building still tumbling down and away from them. The whole floor was gone, as well as the five floors above it. Grace’s mother, Mrs. Rosen, Margie and countless others were right now falling to their final resting place out among the stars.
Some of the patients above her were starting to cry. All Kammie wanted to do was scream. She could have, nobody would judge her. She’d lost her friend, lost her nurses, lost her safe silent space and all the things that seemed to make life worthwhile. But she didn’t scream. She mustered up the most cheerful voice she could manufacture and said, “Alright, let’s keep moving.”
All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.
Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube