To The Hospital
Lena walked away from the house. She didn’t bother to look for electronic watchers, she knew she wouldn’t see them anyway. She kept to the shadows: hugging the side of a wall, walking so close to a bush the thorns caught her elbow, stepping on the edge of lawns, brushing the side of buildings as she passed.
It was cold, the morning light weak and grey, as if night was clinging on, unwilling to leave. Lena could see her breath in puffs of condensed air, coming quickly as she hurried towards the hospital. Her hood was hot, so she pushed it off, then worried she was too visible and pulled it back up, over her hair, hiding her face in its shadow. A car passed her, then another. Neither slowed and she didn’t look at them, was almost past caring if she was seen. This whole experience was too foreign, too unreal, like being caught up in a psychological thriller.
When she reached the corner opposite the old school, she stopped and leant forwards, resting her hands on her knees. She had a pain in her side, knew she was walking too fast to be comfortable, faster than someone with her level of fitness could maintain. She had a long way to go, was still tired from the walk through the tunnel. When she straightened the world spun briefly, a haze of grey and brown. Then her vision cleared, she took some deep breaths, forced herself to calm her breathing, to relax her shoulders. Another car was approaching, its lights sweeping the road, the faint whir of its motor audible in the silence of the early morning. Lena continued walking.
There were lights on in most of the houses, casting a cheery glow into the grey morning. Lena longed to go to them, to knock on a door, ask for help. She could see people inside, preparing to leave for work, eating with their families, chatting, happy, normal, living within the bounds of the law. She wondered how she had got here, what had led her to this place of unwanted adventure and fear, wondered if she could have avoided it.
Lena walked along path after path, crossing roads at designated points, following signs to the hospital. Many of the streets were familiar, but they looked altered in the morning light, menacing somehow, as if warning Lena that she no longer belonged. There were trees, stretching overhead in rigidly planned spaces, houses of people, fenced areas for children to play. At one point her route took her away from the road, along an alleyway with buildings on either side, and Lena heard the whine of cameras as they turned to follow her, security lamps lighting the darker patches of path. She shrunk further into her hood, told herself she could be anyone, the cameras were for her protection, in case she should trip or fall suddenly ill when unseen from the main road. She almost believed herself. The alley joined the main road again, it felt safer, there were more cars, the occasional pedestrian who Lena turned away from as if distracted.
By the time she got near to the hospital, her legs were aching and the strap of her bag dug cruelly into her shoulders. She wondered if she would have a blister—certainly she had one on her left heel, the skin was sore and her shoe rubbed painfully. She stopped, moving her sock, trying to alleviate the pressure slightly. When she looked up, she could see the hospital, shining on the hill, a beacon for the sick. It seemed every room was lit, it sat there, like a glowing fat spaceship, watching over the valley.
The road up to the hospital was lined with trees and Lena walked amongst them, following the line of the road but away from it, hoping to remain unseen. It was fully daylight now and there was a steady stream of cars to and from the hospital, carrying patients, staff, visitors. She tripped on a raised root and staggered, got her balance, adjusted her hood, continued, taking better care to look where she was going.
She checked the map she had been given, the one showing where she would be met. There was an entrance on the right-hand side of the hospital; a narrow driveway led to it, with a circle for the cars to turn, drop their passengers and leave. She checked the time, she was early. Not wanting to stand on the driveway where she might be seen she turned, walked deeper into the trees. There was a small clearing and she sat on the moss, leaned against a trunk. The ground was damp, the moisture almost instantly seeping upwards, through her trousers. She really could not be bothered to move. She reached into her bag, pulled out an energy biscuit and ate it, crumbs falling on the ground and scattering across her jacket. Absently she wiped them away, then took a look at her heel. It was sore but not blistered. She dug out a tissue, tried to pad the heel of her sock. It hurt. She checked the time. It was moving slowly now. She waited.
At 8am, Lena walked from the trees onto the driveway. A couple of cars passed her, people hurried out and into the building; no one seemed to notice her, to wonder why she was walking. She approached the door, uncertain. A nurse saw her, came out. He did not speak, just walked towards the woods, back to where Lena had come from, a quick jerk of his finger indicated for her to follow.
When they were back in the trees, mostly hidden from the road he stopped.
“Hello, w-i-n-d-e-n473?” he asked, using the beginning of her barcode.
She nodded, glanced at his own barcode. The colour bands showed he was highly educated, a senior nurse, owned a small property, had no family. He nodded back at her.
“Good, you are on time, well done.”
He passed her a different barcode, the plastic slightly worn, the pin behind it twisted. “Wear this. It belongs to another watcher, another nurse. It will be picked up by the scanners, they will assume she is arriving for work. I have her uniform,” he looked at Lena, appraising her size, body shape. She felt herself redden under his scrutiny.
“I think it will fit you. I will take you to a washroom, you can change there. You have the vials?”
Lena frowned, not sure what he meant, then realised he was referring to the package for the clones. She nodded, lifted the box from her bag, offered it to him.
The nurse shook his head. “No, you keep them. When you have changed, put your clothes in the bag but keep the vials. We can stow your things in the ceiling, I will show you. Then I will take you to the access hatch and help you in. Here,” he passed her a piece of paper.
Lena unfolded it. It was another map, a maze of lines, crosses marked at intervals. She had seen it before. It was the map that John had shown her in the cottage, the one that showed where the wiring routes were.
“Why are you showing me this?” Lena was confused, then alarmed as she realised what he was assuming. “No, no, I’m not doing this. I have come for my son. I was told you would help me.” She backed away, her back touched the trunk of a tree and she stood there, staring at him, confused. “What is happening? Why are you saying these strange things? I’ve come to find Max, to take him away, they had said you would help me. . .”
The nurse raised his hands, placating.
“Keep calm, breathe, it’s okay, I am helping you,” he said, seeing the rising hysteria, needing her calm, sane. “We are going to get Max, you are going to take him away, to somewhere safe.”
His voice was low, slow, as if willing her to trust him.
The nurse looked at Lena. Her hair was tangled, sticking to her wet forehead, her eyes, red-rimmed from lack of sleep and worry. She stood, slumped against the tree trunk, exhausted, defeated. He seriously doubted she was up to this. But she was all they had. And time was running out. He needed to be back on shift in twenty minutes or his absence would be noticed. She needed to be in the ceiling by then, clear on what her mission entailed.
But first he must calm her, get her to rest and eat a little, persuade her to trust him. He was cross with himself; he had done this all wrong, started in the wrong place. He blamed it on the lack of time, the urgency of the situation.
“Look at me,” he told her.
Lena looked up. Her eyes took in his height, his face looking down at her with eyes that were almost black—grave and hypnotic in their intensity. His white nurse’s uniform stretched across a wide chest, the sleeves rolled back slightly, so she could see dark hairs on his wrists. The impression was one of strength, not necessarily of friendship.
“We are going to get Max,” he repeated. “You are going to take him away, somewhere safe. He is safe now, no one has hurt him. We know where he is, we are watching him, checking him. But before we can take him, we need a distraction. We need to move the security staff away, to another part of the hospital. I cannot do that. You can. It will be easy. You will go to where the clones are. You will administer the injections, you will leave. If anyone sees you, they will think you are a nurse, no one will stop you.
“When you return, I’ll have Max, the staff watching him will have been called away, to where the clones are, away from where Max is. You will take Max and leave. It will be okay. Can you do that Lena?” He remembered her name now, had seen it on the report from John, hoped using it would make him more believable, a friend.
“Can you do that? Can you create a diversion so that I can get Max?”
Actually, she did not think she could do it. She thought she was too tired, too muddled, too frightened. But something about the way he said it, the intensity of his eyes, her lack of alternative options, made her nod. She had no choice, not really. She couldn’t find Max on her own, she needed them to help her. If she did see Max, if she spotted him somewhere while they were in the hospital, then she would take him, she would leave. Their plan meant nothing to her, she had done her bit, she had collected the vials, she owed them nothing. But until she actually knew where her son was, she had no choice, she would do what this man was asking. If she could.
The nurse lifted her bag from where she had let it fall on the mud, frowned. “Why’s it so heavy?” He felt inside, asked: “What’s this?”
“It’s a replica doll. I bought it for my daughter.”
“And you thought it would be a good idea to bring it along?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
Lena was suddenly angry. What right did this man have to challenge her decisions? If she wanted to bring a doll, a gift for her child, who was he to ridicule her, to make her feel silly?
“Yes,” she said, refusing to explain further.
He noted her anger, saw the fight in her, decided she might stand a chance after all.
“Come, we’re running late. I’ll take you somewhere you can change. Then I will bring you something to eat, you need some energy. I’ll help you on your way before I return to work.” He passed her the bag, strode away, back to the hospital.
Lena struggled to fasten the barcode to her jacket then hurried after him, avoiding roots and sticks, not wanting to be left behind. If she was stopped at the entrance, she wanted this man with her. He could explain why she was there—he was less tired than she was.
Lena was not stopped at the entrance. It was a staff entrance. She walked through the haze of sterilising mist with other workers returning to their wards and offices. Her nurse, as she thought of him, strode ahead, not looking at her, not waiting for her. She followed him along bright corridors, wondering if anyone would notice her muddy boots, her damp trousers. No one appeared to, everyone was focused on where they were going, walking quickly with purpose, aware only of the time and not wanting to be late.
They came to a washroom and he slipped inside. She followed. Like all public washrooms, it was designed for both genders, with secure cubicles inside for privacy but with a shared sink area with mirrors above. Flashing signs reminded her to wash her hands, to not place bags on the floor. He told her to lean against the door, so no one else could enter, then reached up, removed a panel from the ceiling. He lowered the white tile, revealing a hole, reached inside and pulled down a bag. He passed it to Lena, then replaced the tile, clicking it into place.
“There’s a uniform in there. Go into a cubicle and put it on. Make sure the door is locked and stay there until I get back.”
“Where are you going?” she said, not sure she wanted to be left alone but also grateful he wouldn’t be there when she changed.
“To get you something to eat.” He turned and left.
Lena went into a cubicle and locked the door, lowered the lid of the toilet and sat, her head buried in her hands. The day had gone from nightmare to surreal.
She looked in the bag. The uniform, of course, was white. Lena felt very grubby after her long sweaty hike and rest in the woods. She left both bags in the cubicle and went back to the sinks, hoping no one would come in. She held her hands under the tap, waited for the flow of soapy water before washing her face, scooping the warm liquid onto her face and neck, scrubbing away sweat and specks of dirt. Then she stood next to the drier, angled it to dry her face, enjoying the warm air as it tickled her hair, chasing wisps across her forehead and neck.
She heard footsteps and hurried back into her cubicle, locking the door. Someone came in, used the cubicle next to her, a man she thought, someone with a good flow anyway. . . She felt an insane urge to laugh, made worse by the need to keep completely silent. She sat there, not moving, hardly even breathing, trying to not listen as they used the toilet. She waited, heard the shuffle of feet, the sound of a zip, the door bang as they left, the hiss of water as they washed their hands, another banged door as they went back into the corridor.
Lena pulled the clothes from the bag. There were the white trousers and tunic that all the female nurses wore, with white plastic shoes. She struggled from her own clothes, stuffing them into the bag, then dressed in the uniform. It was tight across her stomach but not noticeably so. The shoes were a bad fit, very uncomfortable but she could get them on. They squeezed her toes and pushed against her sore heel. She would not be able to walk far in them. She used her fingers to comb her hair, then refastened it in the elastic band she had. She doubted she looked very tidy but was loath to return to the mirrors now she was in uniform, unsure if this was a staff-designated washroom or intended for the public.
She rested the bag of clothes on her muddy boots on the floor, then sat back on the toilet seat. She wondered how long she would have to wait, how long before the nurse returned, what her next instructions would be, how long before she had saved her son.
To be continued tomorrow.
Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. UK Link Here!