ISOLATION 14

They keep calling me Mr. Hartford.

“My name is Donovan,” I say, but can’t be sure I’ve been heard.

I’m cold, and I want to tell them that, too, but I can’t, or I don’t try.

Someone is holding my ankles down and I bend my right knee to slip out, but I can barely lift it off the bed. I’m strapped down. Above me is a ceiling of plain white acoustic tiles and a fluorescent light that’s flickering—one of the tubes is, anyway.

“Don’t try to move around, Mr. Hartford,” one of them says to me.

I can’t see her. She’s behind me. And then I think maybe there’s someone else here, too. Someone named Hartford?

But the room feels like it’s been made for one.

The walls are cinderblocks painted a light blue. Some of the blocks are scratched, showing cement gray underneath. There’s a wheeled cart made of dull metal tubing on which sits three different machines, none of which show any signs of life—no lights, nothing moving.

I try to move my left leg, bend my knee, but I can’t. It doesn’t feel like I can, anyway, but then one of them says, “We’re not going to try to move around, right, Mr. Hartford?”

I try but don’t know if I succeed in shaking my head.

There’s something in my nose, blowing cold air into my right nostril. I reach for it and my elbow bends just fine, though my hand feels numb. I drag the little tube out of my nose and someone puts it back in with a warm, dry hand.

“No,” she says. “We need that in there, okay?”

I think I might be shaking my head again.

She walks around and past me and I can see her, dressed in dark green scrubs, a surgical mask over her nose and mouth. Her eyes are narrow and deeply set under a heavy, masculine brow. I think she’s white—her voice sounds white—but why would that matter? As my eyes follow her they pass a door—there’s a door. The glass in the window has letters running backward, or in some language… I can’t read it.

“You know where you are?” she asks, continuing back around behind my head the other way.

I shake my head but answer, “Isolation 14.” I don’t know why I think that, but it sounds right.

She laughs at me, or maybe she’s clearing her throat.

“My hand is cold,” I say. “My fingers are cold.” I’m holding my left hand up, just barely off the mattress.

She touches my hand, wraps my fingers in hers, and says, “No it’s not. You’re fine.”

But my hand is cold. My fingers are freezing. My hand looks strange, like someone else’s, but it’s definitely mine.

I close my eyes and I think some period of time has gone by. The bed is facing a different direction, my head is turned to my right. There’s the door—the same door. The light isn’t flickering anymore.

“Mr. Hartford,” one of them says—a different one, with a different accent, “do you know where you are? Where are we?”

“Isolation 14,” I say, and my voice is a little better, but it hurts to speak.

“Sore throat?” she asks.

I nod.

“That’s normal,” she says, and I can’t imagine why that would be normal.

The cart with the machines is gone and instead there are two empty IV stands.

This makes me wonder why I keep falling asleep, makes me wonder how long I was asleep. There’s a pinch in the crook of my right elbow and I loll my head down to look at it. There’s an IV there, leaking a little bit of colorless liquid under a transparent plastic strip. I pick up my left hand to try to pull it out, but her hand on my wrist is firm. She pushes it back down, but doesn’t restrain me.

“Someone’s holding my ankles,” I tell her and she laughs at me.

“Do you know what year it is?” she asks and I can’t imagine why she would ask that. “Do you know the name of the President?”

“I can’t stay awake,” I say, maybe finishing the entire sentence before I’m asleep again. It’s like one slow, heavy blink and the empty IV stands are gone and there’s a folding chair, putty brown, in its place. The door is on the same side of me.

“Help me,” I say, if for no other reason than to determine if there’s anyone in the room to hear me.

There isn’t.

I reach up with my left hand to pull the IV out of my right elbow and my hand flops down on the tube. It hurts a little when it hits. My fingers move slowly—barely at all. I can’t get a grip on the little tube under the surprisingly thick plastic strip.

I need to get out of here. I need to go home. I need to get back to work. There are bills to pay, I tell myself, but I can’t think of what bills are due. What do I need to pay? When do I need to pay it?

“Mr. Hartford,” a scolding voice says, and a nurse walks in through the door, blocking the space behind it. She’s big, and she isn’t wearing a mask, and her scrubs are green and her shoes are a brilliant white as if today is the first time she’s worn them.

“I’m not…” I start, but lose track of what I was going to say as she gently pulls my left hand back to my side.

“How’s the pain?” she asks. She moves back behind me and I’m vaguely aware of something beeping back there.

“No,” I reply, hoping that will convey the fact that I feel no pain at all. It’s all I have the energy to say.

My left hand comes up and there’s an unpleasant warmth in the crook of my right elbow. She’s putting something in my IV, maybe something for the pain, something that will make me fall asleep again.

“No,” I say again, and this time I put more urgency into it—or try to.

She comes up next to me and takes hold of my left wrist. She has brown eyes and dry, almost chalky skin, and she smells like cigarettes. And she’s trying to drug me—she has drugged me.

“You try to rest now, Mr. Hartford,” she says, and I can see that she’s irritated with me.

“Why?” I ask.

“To help with the pain,” she says, faking a smile, pretending to comfort me. But I was asking why she was trying to keep me here, to keep me asleep, to keep me isolated.

“No,” I say, thinking I’ll explain it to her.

“Let’s not be difficult, now,” she says, and anger blasts through me, faster and hotter than the drugs dripping into my arm and I whip my wrist out of her hand. She gets halfway through this Mr. Hartford business again before I punch her.

I’ve never punched a woman, I don’t think, but I punch this one—hard—as hard as I can, knowing that in the state I’m in, that won’t be very hard. Her head explodes in a puff of red mist and pieces of hot things pelt my face, making me blink. The sheet over me is already soaked and there’s nothing on her shoulders and blood comes out of her neck in fountains, timed with her heartbeat. She’s still on her feet and my left hand hurts a little and is drenched in red and it’s hot—hotter than I though blood could be—and there’s something on my hand. I flick it off and it’s her scalp, or a part of her scalp, and her body makes a terrible sound when it drops to the floor and I can’t see her anymore and I try to scream, or call someone and then the anger is gone all at once, replaced by whatever she pumped into my right arm, and I’m asleep again.

Well, that couldn’t have happened.

No way that actually happened.

This is clear to me when I wake up into the middle of what I guess you could call a panic attack.

It’s literally impossible for me to have punched someone’s head off. Mike Tyson couldn’t do that, and I’m… I feel like I’m old, but no exact number presents itself. This troubles me, but only a little.

The dream of bursting a nurse’s head with my fist still lingers, the feel of the hot blood, the sounds of it—horrible.

I’m still in Isolation 14. I think the last time I was awake there was a folding chair, but now there’s that same cart again but with one of the machines gone.

I puzzle a little over how I could remember that it’s the same cart and that there used to be three machines on it, but not remember how old I am.

I still have an IV in.

They’re still drugging me.

Weird dreams, hallucinations even, and spotty memory—that could all be drugs. Of course that’s all drugs.

“Ah,” a woman says, “we’re awake.”

We’re? We are?

I turn to look at her and my head flops to the side. She’s sitting in one of those big weird hospital room chairs, a little blanket over her knees, a magazine in her hand that’s in some foreign language—I can’t read it. I can’t even tell what language it is.

“How are we feeling, Mr. Hartford?” she asks, and she seems sincerely curious. She isn’t afraid of me—that I can see in her face. I sigh a little, relieved. That clinches it for me. I didn’t punch one of her coworkers’ head off.

“Donovan,” I say, and man, does that hurt.

“Throat still a little sore?”

I nod in response and she stands, letting her blanket fall to the tile floor. She rummages around behind my head and comes back with a little plastic cup with a straw in it.

God only knows what she’s really giving me but I’m so thirsty I don’t care. It hurts to swallow it. It tastes like water, cool but not cold. She smiles down on me as I drink some more. The second swallow less painful than the first.

She pulls the cup away and says, “Let’s not drink too much yet, Mr. Hartford.”

I want the rest of the water and more, but I’m too tired to put up a fight.

“How are we feeling?” she asks, looking at something on the wall behind my head. I’m propped up a little in the hospital bed, tucked in under a white blanket. I still have the IV, but whatever was holding my ankles down is gone. My fingers and toes are cold. I feel like I could move, that I have the ability to move, but I don’t want to.

“My name,” I whisper, because it hurts less, “isn’t Hartford.”

The nurse smiles at me, practically dripping with rehearsed patience, and says, “Of course it is, Mr. Hartford.”

She wraps cold, strong fingers around my left wrist, leaning right over me to do so. There’s a plastic band around my left wrist, but it’s under the blanket and under her hand. I can’t read it.

“Right here,” she says, her voice the sort of sing-song you might use to talk to a three-year-old, “Hartford.”

I shake my head. “Donovan,” I whisper, and she ignores me, tucking the blanket around me. It feels good when she finally covers my toes.

“My hands are cold,” I whisper to her. “My fingers.”

She grabs my left forearm, not as tight, not having to lean over me, and says, “You’re fine.”

“Why am I here?” I ask her, but she doesn’t seem to hear me. I can’t be sure I actually made a sound.

I clear my throat—that hurts—and I whisper, “Are you drugging me?”

She laughs at that and says, “Of course not, Mr. Hartford. Why? Are we feeling a little woozy?”

I shake my head, but I guess you could call this “woozy.”

“Well,” the nurse says, “that’s to be expected.”

Then she leaves. Just walks to the door, opens it, walks out, and closes it behind her.

“Wait,” I hiss out, but the door is already closed.

I take as deep a breath as I can and lay back down. Maybe if I just lay here for a few minutes my strength will come back. I try to think through this—and parts of it, at least, seem pretty obvious. I must have been in some kind of accident or something. I had some kind of surgery. I’m in the hospital. They think my name is Hartford. Maybe they think I know what happened to me, know why I’m here. Both of these nurses seem to feel they don’t need to explain anything to me.

But then I’m not sure the first nurse was even real at all.

That ended in a dream—it had to have—though it didn’t seem to start out as a dream. I saw the room, the door, the ceiling… that’s all the same.

“Knock knock,” someone says instead of knocking, already coming in the door.

Another nurse. This one is heavy, round, with a broad, smiling, pleasant face. There are little cartoon characters on her scrubs—a yellow square with eyes. She’s pushing a cart with a blue plastic bin on it.

“Hi there, Mr. Hartford, glad to see we’re coming around,” she says, all smiles, stopping at the foot of my bed. “We remember each other, right?” She puts a hand over the plastic badge hanging from the V-neck collar of her scrubs. “Do we remember my name?”

I shake my head. I’ve never seen this woman before in my life.

She looks disappointed and I whisper, “I’m sorry.”

“Are we still feeling a little woozy?” she asks, taking her hand away from her badge. I blink at it, trying to focus, and I can clearly make out her picture, but all the writing is in some other language—an alphabet I don’t recognize. I try to remember the name of the alphabet the Russians use, but can’t. It’s not Chinese.

“Mr. Hartford?” she prompts, and I start shaking my head but change over to a nod. I do feel woozy.

“Well,” she says, tipping her head to one side like a puppy, “that’s to be expected.”

Then I shake my head, and I don’t know why.

“Okay, well, my name is Honey… Nurse Honey, but everybody just calls me Honey.”

I shake my head again, and I still don’t know why.

That makes her giggle. I think I might have smiled a little, too.

“I hear tell,” she goes on, dropping her hands into the blue bin, “that we’ve been having a little memory trouble.”

A chill runs down my arms, and not just because of what she said but because of the cheerful, mocking tone in which she said it. Her face falls a little at my reaction.

“Sorry,” she says in some kind of weird, cartoony voice.

I shake my head again but she doesn’t see. She’s looking down and rummaging around in the bin.

She pulls out a shoe—a man’s shoe, athletic shoe—and she holds it up in both palms as though presenting it to me.

“Does this look familiar?” she asks, opening her eyes wide, turning her head a little bit away, waiting, somehow also cheering me on.

I shake my head and say, “It’s a shoe.”

“Good,” she says as if praising a puppy for going pee-pee outside. “Now, whose shoe is this?”

I shake my head. I want to ask for water but instead croak out, “No idea.”

She’s disappointed, but puts the shoe back in the bin. “Well,” she says, as if talking to herself, “that’s a hard one. Let’s see… Ah! Here we go.” She takes out a black leather wallet and holds it up.

“That’s not mine,” I tell her, whispering again. Even as I’m telling her it isn’t mine I can’t think of what my wallet looks like, if I even have a wallet. My wife gave me a wallet for my birthday last year and she put a five dollar bill in it like her grandparents used to do, and we laughed about that. I can feel the memory my laugh in my throat, the tickle of hers in my ears.

She opens it and pulls out a card with the picture of a man on it and more of the foreign writing. “Guess who?” she teases.

I shake my head.

She smiles at me, waiting.

“That’s not mine,” I whisper to her. “I don’t even know what country that’s from.”

She turns the card and looks at it, makes a show of grimacing, then says, “Well, it sure looks like you!”

“Can you—?” I start to ask but cough and sputter.

She steps behind me and comes back with the same plastic cup. She lets me drink as much as I want to, which is all of it.

“Thank you,” I say in something approximating a normal voice.

She smiles as she puts the cup away then goes back to the blue bin at the foot of my bed and picks up the card again. “Sure we don’t want to take another look at this?”

“Can you read that?” I ask. “What language is that?”

She looks at the card again and her face drops. I have a sudden urge to hug her. I think I start to cry.

“Okay,” she says, still looking down at the card.

She thinks for a minute, her lips pressed together, her mouth twisting into strange patterns as she slides the card back into the wallet and drops the wallet into the bin. She moves something around in there, stops, looks up at me, looks back down into the bin, then sets her forearms over the bin, leaning over it.

She looks me right in the eyes and says, “Well, looks like we’re way, way more fucked up than we thought.”

I want to look away from her but I can’t.

“Did I hurt myself?” I ask her.

She just stares at me, her face going blank, almost sagging off her skull.

“Fuck,” I whimper. “Did I have a stroke or something? Did I smash my head? Do I have brain damage? Am I fucking paralyzed?”

She just stares at me, her face so still it’s as if she’s turned to stone.

“Can you hear me?” I whisper, my eyes blurring from tears.

I have to close my eyes.

“Where am I? What hospital is this? What country is this? Have you called my wife? Call my…”

I open my eyes, blinking back the tears, and she’s gone. I didn’t hear her leave, couldn’t hear the door open and close.

“Nurse…?” I try to call out, but I can’t yell or shout, or make my voice any louder than a choked stage whisper. “Honey? Why am I in isolation? Why do you keep calling me Mr. Hartford? Who’s shoe was that? What happened to me?”

But I’m alone in the room.

A woman’s voice crackles over a staticky P.A. system, “Try not get agitated, Mr. Hartford,” she says. “Let’s try to remain calm, okay?”

“What happened?” I ask, then fall into a round of body-shuddering sobs. I think I remember driving, that my wife was in the passenger side next to me. I know it’s her but I can’t see her face behind her long brown hair. “What happened to me?”

“No one here can tell you that, Mr. Hartford.”

I take a few quivering breaths and ask the ceiling, “How can that be?” There was no accident. I remember pulling up to a house I think is our house, but it doesn’t look any different from any other house.

“Is there anything else we can help you with, Mr. Hartford?”

I loll my head around on my shoulders, scanning the room, the blanket still firmly tucked around me on the bed, looking for anything… something.

“My hands are cold,” I say finally. “My fingers are cold.”

“Of course they aren’t, Mr. Hartford,” the voice replies. “You don’t have any fingers.”

That’s when I start screaming.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to ISOLATION 14

  1. mjtedin says:

    Nice, this totally reminds of a Weird Tales kind of story.

  2. Lyri says:

    Awesome! Thanks

  3. Tim says:

    Enjoyed this piece. Kinda still want to know how “Mr. Hartford” got in the hospital but useful in keeping my interest even if not addressed. Nice work.

    Tim Williams

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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