by David Christopher Johnston
The pain feels like pitchforks scraping inside his veins. Body stiffens, scream dies on the lips, trembling hands grasp sheets, head sinks into flat pillows – a bed, but not his own. His brain is thick fog, an incomprehensible muddle of green and white.
‘Again,’ the voice says.
It steals his breath. His limbs spasm. Whispers dance in a maddening deathly choir then crash like waterfalls, spilling over the edge of the bed and rushing away. On the edge of hearing, death drums its low rumble on the peripheral of his dreams, seeking a way inside.
‘Again,’ the voice repeats. He writhes in agony and goes limp, muscles burning like hot stones that stop the bed from floating away.
Hours pass, maybe days. The snot-coloured curtain that forms a semi-circle around his bed hangs six inches short of the floor, allowing tentacles of light to slither underneath. The antique ceiling fan above his head throbs in perpetual slow motion.
Scraping and shuffling in the darkness capture his attention. It edges closer, bringing a stench of bleach and sickness. A figure appears behind the curtain, its burnt and blackened feet visible below the hemline. He suppresses a cry; holds his breath. The figure slinks away without a word.
He is exhausted, drifting in and out of sleep only to be woken by a chorus of violent screams that attack like angry hornets. He fights the unbearable noise with his hands, thrashing the empty air.
‘Again,’ the voice chuckles in his ear.
He gulps the stale atmosphere, storing it for later. Two plastic tubes protrude from his abdomen in a rhubarb and custard swirl; he follows them as they rise behind the bed and disappear into the wall. The canula in his wrist links to a bag of clear liquid hanging from a metal stand. The machines to his right flash with numbers and beep like broken alarm clocks.
‘What the hell is going on?’ he thinks out loud.
As he flits in and out of consciousness something tugs at his leg and his eyes glimpse a hand retreating into the shadows. All the while the ominous orchestra of death draws closer, creeping through the halls of his mind (searching for his soul).
‘Help me!’ he sobs.
When he opens his eyes again the curtain is gone, revealing a shadowy hospital ward. To his right a corridor of pale walls and flickering lights; to his left a broken, rusty wheelchair and an occupied bed by the window.
‘Hello,’ he shouts in a hoarse voice.
The woman in the bed does not reply.
‘Hello. Can you hear me?’
The woman emits a guttural, terminal sound then falls off the bed onto the floor, landing face down.
‘Hey, are you okay?’
The woman stirs and drags herself across the room towards him, grabbing his bedsheets with yellow hands, staring out of hollow eyes. ‘Again,’ she smiles through broken teeth.
The pain returns, worse than before, racing down his spine and evaporating into heart-shaped balloons that rise and burst on the ceiling fan above. When it subsides his eyes search every shadow for the woman, but she is gone. Sanity sinks like quicksand into the afterlife.
The sound of feet in the corridor. A nurse rushes past the room. She moves in an unnerving, disjointed shuffle, her blackened bare feet slapping off the tiles. He shrinks against the bed, hoping not to be seen.
When she returns moments later her head snaps towards him. ‘Medication time,’ she cackles, rushing forward and grasping him by the shoulders. She shakes him violently, hot breath burning his skin. He shuts his eyes and screams for this nightmare to end.
‘Again,’ the voice sighs.
The contortions are so fierce this time his nose bleeds. Eyelids squeezed shut, vivid hallucinations project across his retina in a delirious display. After several minutes of anguish he has no choice but to open his eyes. The nurse stands in the corner now, facing the wall and muttering; his bed is covered in used syringes, sheets heavy and wet. The sound of an engine roars to life and the tubes in his stomach retract suddenly, pulling him towards the wall. Blood spurts from the wounds, forcing him to his feet. He tries in vain to tear the tubes from his body, bashing his fists against the wall in despair. He begs for mercy but no one is listening. The symphony of the reaper is here.
‘Flat line, flat line, flat line!’ the nurse chuckles from the corner.
Darkness booms and bounds down the corridor, shattering windows in its approach. He can taste the bleach, the blood, the sickness in its wake. He is pressed tight against the wall, tubes spewing his intestines across the hospital floor like spilt spaghetti.
The scream dies on his lips, but the darkness doesn’t care.
Copyright © 2023 David Christopher Johnston.
David Christopher Johnston hereby asserts and gives notice of his right under s.77 and s.78 of the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work of fiction. All moral rights are asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this work of fiction may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author. This short story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.