I stare at the three digits on my watch: 2... 4... 8... 2-4-8. Two forty-eight. The little part of me that's still sober winces at my predicament. I'm squatting in a hotel hallway, shirtless in paisley boxers. I've no idea where my room is, but I know it can't be that far away, since I'm holding a bucket of ice from the ice machine. My ER shift starts in about five hours. But for the moment, this spot on the floor feels really good.
She finds me lying in front of the elevators about twenty minutes later. She's wearing my button-down shirt over her lacey bra. She's still smiling with her light-brown hair pulled back in a high ponytail. I try to say her name, but I've forgotten it for the tenth time tonight.
"I forgot the room number," I plead.
That strikes her as hilarious, and she starts to laugh. We stumble back to the room. I'm done drinking, but she manages to pour herself another gin and tonic. She can't stomach much more than a sip, and her eyes cross when she swallows. She puts the drink down on the mantel, next to five other empty glasses.
We have sex again. This time it's tough to keep going, but I've got her exposed in all sorts of eye-popping positions. That memory is one that will stick -- in a good sort of way.
I fall asleep for a couple of hours, and a cracking pain in my skull wakes me before the alarm. I pull myself out of bed and hit the shower.
As I'm gathering my stuff, she doesn't stir. I check her pulse: strong and steady. My dried jizz is all over her belly, and she's spilled that last drink on the bed. I clean her up a bit with a warm, wet cloth and prop her head up on two pillows. Her face is warm and flushed. Her lips are swollen and full from kissing. I put her under the covers and draw the blinds tight.
The room is trashed. Fortunately, it's her room.
I do a thick line of pure Colombian cocaine and leave what's left in the bag for her. That's my gift to the party.
I'm thinking about the shift. I'm worried about it -- worried about screwing up. Luckily, it's a short shift, only about eight hours. I close my eyes and start to prep myself, get myself out of this escape pod and ready for my real life.
But within thirty seconds, I'm just not worried at all. The shift might as well be twenty-four hours, and I wouldn't bat an eye. I feel crisp and sober. It's like a snowy, crystalline miracle cutting through the booze.
At the hospital I put on fresh scrubs and squirt Visine into each eye. Two Advil and three glasses of water later, I'm on my way into the ER for an ordinarily quiet Sunday-morning shift.
And sure enough, the ER is quiet. But that's not really an issue now. I feel that I can deal with anything. I've loaded up on gum, mouthwash, and deodorant. I smell as if I had just stepped out of a spearmint shower. My eyes are clear, and my face is tight. I'm a little twitchy and excitable, but I can control it. Right now I feel pretty good after a night of indulging in multiple, destructive vices.
"You ready for report, Jeff?" Dr. Neiber demands.
"Bring it," I joke, and kick my legs up on the desk.
What he's saying makes a lot of sense to me. In fact, by the time he's done, I've got a handle on all twenty-four beds. My brain is working furiously. And the minute Dr. Neiber trudges off, I hit the big board with the charge nurse, a cute brunette named Sally, and start clearing out the ER.
"Doc, you in a rush today?"
"I'm always in a rush, Sally. This is the ER."
"I don't think the patients feel that way," she says as she nods to a couple of folks lying in roll-away beds in the corridor.
"Once they sober up, get 'em out," I say.
"Doc, do you know their cases?"
I pause. I'm acting a little too cavalier. She can sense that something is off. "I was just joking with you. I'm gonna make the rounds and get some orders in."
"Okay, Doc," she says.
I walk off straight to the bathroom and douse my face again in cold water for the third time this morning. I take a few deep breaths, but it doesn't help. Nothing can help me now. My pulse is bounding. I can't keep my face still. The little wrinkles and creases are moving like pinworms under my skin. A nervous smile keeps showing up in the mirror.
I remind myself that I am a former section chief of the ER. I'm a great doc. I'm a dad. I'm a husband. But all that just seems bland and pointless.
I still feel good, energized. As if I can handle it all right now. And I want to share that with everyone on the ER floor.
Somehow, from beneath the cocaine locomotive, a rational thought escapes: Today could be a horrendous disaster if you don't contain yourself.
To still my mind, I close my eyes and imagine a sheet of gray rock. But suddenly, bursts of red are erupting from the dull-gray stone. Now they look like spatters of blood, and entire bodies exploding. My eyes snap open. The closing-my-eyes-and-relaxing tactic won't work today. I think about taking a Valium, but that might bring on a crash.
Seven hours and thirty minutes -- that's all I have left before I can make it home. I'll tell Pamela I did back-to-back shifts, then take a Valium and sleep for twelve hours. I've got the next two days off for some wholesome living. Four hundred fifty minutes to go. The countdown to keep myself from unraveling starts now.
A sliver of brightness shines from the black windows. It's white at first. But now it's turning pink. The room is dark. I can't move. But at least, there's a light.
That's when I retch. I can't move. I'm alone... I think.
But I have to move to survive. I roll over. I hear the thump of my head hitting the dresser, but I don't feel it. I'm falling for quite a long time. Odd. I feel my body land on a glass. It breaks under me with a snap, but nothing hurts.
I see the light. It draws me in slow steps. But I'm not stepping. I'm crawling. I'm retching.
I'm not at the light, not yet. In the dark, I feel the cold tiles. The pressure builds again, and a stream of hot, stinging water emerges from my nostrils. Open your mouth. Damn it!
I'm sliding on the vomit in the dark.
I hear knocking from somewhere far off.
I don't recognize my voice.
I feel my head hit something hard and unyielding. I fall over, and my back is wet. The retching won't stop. The burning water fills my throat. The light was so close, but now it's gone.
"That's a nice-looking girl," I whisper to my partner. "Too bad."
"That's fucked up," he says back to me, and jabs me in the ribs.
I always feel helpless in this kind of medical situation. As a cop, I'm a first responder. I can handle some basic CPR. But now they've got the girl hooked up to an IV and are injecting her with all sorts of drugs. That's beyond my domain. Out of my authority. That's just living and dying.
That's why I'm helpless until I know which direction she's going. If it's to the graveyard, then I've got a new case on the desk, even though I don't have the resources to devote to it. If she lives -- and I hope to God she does -- I bet she'll see the world a little differently. But her direction, something I've got nothing to do with, will determine which way the case rolls.
"She's lucky the maid found her quick."
"Why are you whispering?" he says loudly.
I shrug and watch the paramedics doing chest compressions. The girl is covered in vomit. The place smells like a dirty toilet. I've already cased the room. There's the usual stuff that happens at a party: empty bottles, cigarette butts, the stink of sweat and stale cigarette smoke and, now, vomit. The only thing unusual is an almost dead girl.
The girl's got all sorts of contacts and cards in her purse, and a suitcase with a weekend's worth of clothes. She's got a life somewhere. Family. Friends. A decent-paying job.
I found a Valium bottle prescribed by a Dr. Wallah, and a half-gram of cocaine. The girl mixed way too much into her young body. I also found a used condom in the trash. That might come in handy for DNA -- that is, if she dies.
"Stop compressions. Check the pulse," the lead paramedic yells. The two medics are crowded near the bathroom. They pulled the girl out of the bathroom but started CPR a bit hastily, with only half her body out the doorway.
"I've got a pulse," the other medic says.
"Stop compressions. Keep up with the breaths," the lead medic says.
A minute later, the girl starts to vomit again, and they turn her over on her side. Her green eyes open for an instant, unfocused, and then roll back into her head as she vomits again. I'm happy for the girl. I am. She's young. She's pretty. Hopefully, she makes the best of her second chance.
I glance over at my partner and say, "We'll follow them to the hospital and see how she does. We'll need to get a statement later. Then we can close it out."
"Get that out of my face," I say through clenched teeth.
The nurse's jaw drops as if she's ready to slap me. She's about to say something, but instead she rolls her eyes and stalks off. She's been bugging me all fucking day. Bugging me about little shit that can wait until I'm done with what I'm doing.
The ER has filled up. I've got an hour left on my shift. I'm flagging, and the finish line seems farther and farther away. Hovering over me are the mom and dad of a kid who just got back from church with hives. Apparently, this is the second time it's happened. Every chance they get, they're hovering by my station in their pressed church clothes. I want to grab the fat mom and tell her to stop taking her dumb-ass kid to church and get out of my ER.
I trot across the ER to a patient stall, to give him some discharge instructions for a small abscess near his armpit. I avoid any eye contact and conversation. Anything that spews out of my mouth right now sounds toxic. The less I talk, the better. This day can't end soon enough.
Then I realize that everyone will be home. The thought of going home to the family almost stops me in my tracks. Fuck! I'm not sure how I will handle that.
I know what I'll tell them. I've just worked back-to-back shifts. I'll kiss and hug them quick and get upstairs. The Valium's in my bathroom drawer. I'll take it while I'm brushing, then just pretend to pass out on the bed.
"Doc, we've got an OD and trauma coming in hot."
"Fuck me," I mutter. "Get trauma bed two ready."
I wrap up two more charts and kick out a couple of patients who really didn't need to be in the ER to begin with. On their discharge papers, I scribble follow-up appointments. My handwriting looks more jagged and uneven than my son's, and he's 7.
At least, I'm getting the patients out and keeping the ER beds open. I've written out my report for the incoming doc, so I don't have to risk saying too much. I glance at the clock. I've knocked out another ten minutes, but each minute is getting harder for my disjointed mind to compose.
I see them rolling in the body on the stretcher. She's tubed and sedated.
The cops start to walk up to me, and I snap at them, "Stay out here."
"Sure thing, Doc," the cop says. He shuts his mouth in mid sentence and flushes a little. He's a young guy, a little heavy, with pleasant brown eyes set wide apart, and a sharp widow's peak.
The nurse snaps on a gown, and I get gloved up. "Double-glove," I say. "You can never be too safe with the ODs."
I really hate the ER at East Plains Memorial. It's crowded. It's bright, and everyone's all high and mighty -- even the nurses. They look at my partner and me like we're degenerates. I feel like I'm too big in the hallway, like my crew cut is too short. My gut's too big. And my gun is too black in the holster.
I try and get a word in with the doc, but he just shushes me and I step aside.
The doc does look like chewed-up crap. I notice how he's moving a notch faster than anyone else, but he's moving a lot and not really getting anywhere. He looks miserable, too -- probably been working twenty-four hours straight. I watch him put on his gown, but not before I see his name badge.
And that name does seem really familiar. While I'm standing in the corner, it bugs me for a while that I can't place it. Then the light bulb goes off. I know where I've seen that name.
Inside, they've got the girl laid out on the bed. I take a quick look at her muscular legs and don't see any bruises or abrasions. "Cover her up!" I yell.
I glance up at the monitor. Her blood pressure is through the roof from the epi she got during the code. She's tachycardic but regular. Her face is a puffy, bruised mess. A long, bloody gash is still oozing along her scalp, and bits of vomit are caught in her hair.
Once the bed is ready, she's going straight to the ICU. I've just got to get her stabilized before I can check out. I can kill some time in here underneath this mask and gown. Time is on my side; the minutes have got to be winding down.
I take off the blanket to take a look at her neck and chest. Her breasts are hanging over the sides of her body. Her chest is bruised from the compressions. Her chest rises and falls with the ominous rattle of the ventilator.
"Clean her up at bit," I say. "Get the vomit off her. Let's get a full set of portable films and a stat head-and-neck CT."
I glance at her again, and something is familiar. I look at her face. Before I've even recognized her, I know something is wrong. My heart is racing, and I can feel it in my jaw. Her face I can hardly recognize, but the shape of her breasts and the way they bulge out over her ribs . . . the long torso and long legs, the light-brown hair still in a ponytail... I glance at her wristband: Shania Johansen.
That was her name. I'll never forget it again.
I've handled thousands of traumas, but now nothing makes sense in here. The pattern I'm accustomed to breaks down. I hear disorganized, unconnected words from the nurses. The X-ray machine rolls in and stops by my foot. The tools seem foreign. The technology is overwhelming. Now the rattle of the ventilator is downright menacing.
All I can do is take off my mask and stare at her. I feel myself welling up with tears. It's the crash. I can't stop it. I was almost to the finish line, and now this.
I can hear the nurse talking to me, but I'm not paying any attention to her. All I can think is how different Shania Johansen was when I left her. She was still beautiful. She was to be only a pleasant memory that faded away as I returned to my real life. She wasn't meant to be an OD.
I grip her hand, trying to be subtle, but everyone in the room spots it. It's not something a doctor normally does.
"Everything okay, Doc? You know her?"
"Everything's fine. Just checking her skin tone and circulation," I say, and stumble out of the trauma room. I take off my gown.
"How's she doing in there, Doc?" the cop asks.
"She'll do okay," I whisper, and start to walk away.
But oddly, the cop puts his hand on my shoulder. I look up at him, and he's staring at my name tag. Then he looks at me, recognition dawning on his face.
"Doc, we need to talk."
"Later," I say, unclear why he's even talking to me.
I race back to the bathroom and wash my face. My eyes are bleary, and I can't will away the redness and the deep, heavy bags collecting around them. All day, I've been pouring every bit of energy and focus I have into reaching the end of this shift. But now I can't figure out what to do. What do I do with the girl?
Then a bit of rage sets in. Why! This girl almost died because of me. I seduced her. I got her drunk and high. She wasn't innocent, of course -- none of us are. But if it weren't for the pills, the coke, the booze, and the weed, she would have avoided this tragedy. I would have avoided it. I wonder if I still can.
I walk back to the room that is now empty except for her quiet body.
She's young and she will pull through this. I've got to stich up her laceration before I can leave. I see the vials of vasoactive drugs strewn over the counters. It's not so different from the party just a few hours ago. Just like the other drugs, these, too, can kill you.
And then the sickest thought I've ever had occurs to me.
I can kill her. Right now. I have the power to erase everything about today. My wife will never find out about it. Shania will never be able to tell anyone about me. She's just another dead OD.
A little part of me is screaming, No-o-o-o-o! But it's only a little part, while the white beast is far bigger than I can wrestle down. I fondle the syringe of lidocaine and fentanyl. There's a lethal dose right here if I pump it into her bloodstream.
I feel like some sort of monster. I know this is the crash. It's not me. It's not Jeff. The cocaine crash tears apart my mind. I can't remember who I am, what I am. What is right and what's wrong. But the more I think about it, injecting her, the more sense it makes. I can forget all this. I can carry on as if nothing ever happened. I know that's the cocaine calling me, but its siren song is so much stronger than Jeff.
I hear an ambulance wheeling off into the big city. Its siren is receding in the distance, but in my mind, it's only getting louder. It's the scream for help. But it's trapped. And I've still got the syringe in my hand.
That's when I hear the curtain rustle open.
I look over and see the cop. "What are you doing in here?"
"Doc, we really need to talk." He holds up a prescription bottle.
I unload the contents of the syringe on the metal tray table. And suddenly, the scream is gone. Now it's fear.
It's my pill bottle. It's empty. I must have left it in the hotel room. And there's my name on it: Dr. Jeff Wallah.
The cop taps my name badge. "Sorry, Doc, but we're gonna have to do some questioning."
Even through the cocaine crash and hangover, I know right then that my life, as I knew it, is over. I'll certainly lose my credentials. I might lose my license. I'll probably lose my wife.
I'm looking at the cop's wide face, and I feel fear and guilt. But in that malaise of guilt, I feel something else. And it's shocking, that at this moment, I might dare to feel some hope. I've hit the bottom, a splattered mess on the floor. I can't get any lower, and, strangely, there's some solace in that. And this man just saved me. He saved me from something monstrous, pulled me back from the white avalanche. It's an avalanche that has been building for a long time, and it was going to happen, today or some other day soon.
I grab his arm, but he knows it's not hostile. I can't find any words, but the tears are burning. I look over at Shania, whose vacant eyes are staring back at me.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Rajeev Prasad. All rights reserved.