stories of faith and fright
Deus Ex Machina
Al Bruno III
It had taken Louise York five years to get her nursing degree and it wasn’t until five years after graduation that she came to understand how much she loathed humanity in general and sick people in particular.
That was why she came in late and she left early, why she was sycophantic to her superiors and a terror to her coworkers, why she spent as little time as she could doing any work at all.
That was why she kept finding her way to room that belonged to the nameless boy, room 549.
In the summer of 1938 he certainly wasn't the Asheboro Public Hospital's only patient entombed in an iron lung but he was the only that had a room all to himself.
The first thing Nurse York did when she was in the nameless boy's room was to close the door firmly behind her. Then she started cursing, letting loose the stream of profanity she had been holding back since breakfast. She kept her voice down so the groan and hiss of the iron lung drowned her out.
If the nameless boy heard her he made no sign. Usually the boy was flat on his back, looking up at the cracked ceiling, but today he was on his side. He stared glassily at Nurse York as she sat in the chair beside him and retrieved the flask and cigarettes from her purse.
She lit her first cigarette and inhaled, then she had a nip from her flask. It usually felt good to hide out here for a while but she couldn’t quite relax with him facing towards her. She thought of repositioning him but then sneered in contempt. He, and all the other saps in the polio ward, got doted on more than enough as far as she was concerned.
“What are you lookin‘ at?” Nurse York said, then she blew smoke towards the iron lung and watched it drift.
The nameless boy didn't blink or cough or complain, he never did. According to the hospital rumor mill he had been found in an alleyway two winters ago, silent and paralyzed, no relative had ever come foreword to claim him and no attempt to learn his identity had ever succeeded.
After a few more sips from her flask Nurse York leaned forward and spoke conspiratorially, “Lucky boy. Private room, all the doctors and nurses feeling sorry for you. I bet you love it.”
She leaned back in the chair and took in the room, it really was the nicest room in the hospital. It was wide and softly lit, there were paintings of starry skies hanging on the walls and a little table on the windowsill that had fresh flowers and unlit votive candles set upon it. The iron lung so clean it almost glittered.
“I bet you’re just lazy, most men are lazy. You like getting waited on hand and foot, we even have to wipe your butt for you.” She finished her first cigarette and lit her second, “You know what? I bet you’re playing with your peter in there.”
The nameless boy regarded her emptily. The iron lung hissed and chugged.
“Are you blushing?” She laughed sharply, “Well, it’s no skin off my nose what you do. It’s not like you’re ever gonna get to use it anywhere else. You’re gonna be nothing but a jellyfish in a few years time... No better yet! You’re like a snail with just the head sticking out.”
More sips, more cigarettes. Someone should be looking for her by now but she didn’t care. “Poor lonely snail...” A wicked grin filled her face. Without bothering to get off the chair she hiked up her skirt and gave him a little flash, “Wanna bite of my sandwich?”
Then she started laughing, laughing so hard that tears came to her eyes, laughing so hard that she fell off the chair. It wasn’t until she righted herself again that she saw the nameless boy had turned away.
He was facing the other direction.
Nurse York’s face went red with humiliation and rage. She got to her feet so quickly that she kicked one of her shoes across the room.
“Look at me!” she grabbed his chin and twisted him back to face her. She didn’t know if the cigarette in her hands was her third or her fifth but she knew he was going to feel it. This was a trick she had played before, just a tiny burn behind the ear or deep in the hairline. Something that was just enough to send a patient a warning.
The iron lung hissed and groaned. The red-orange light of the cigarette made a slow arc downwards.
Then his head came off in her hands.
It pulled away bloodlessly leaving a tangle of boneless, fleshy tendrils that writhed to life like a nest of angry serpents. The sight set Nurse York screaming, she ran vowing to leave the boy, room 549 and this entire hospital behind her.
When she opened the door she found the hospital staff standing in the hallway. It wasn’t just the night crew, there were people from the day shift, even a couple of long term patients were there.
Nurse York tried to shove past them only to have them crowd her back into the room. They were utterly silent and none of them looked at her, they only stared reverently at the nameless boy in the iron lung.
When her arm had been dragged into the iron lung she felt a flare of pain as something bit down. She knew that soon her entire body would be pulled through the neck hole of the machine, her bones would crack and splinter but she would fit.
It was only then that Louise York understood she had transgressed, that this room was a temple to the chosen few. In her last moments she begged to be forgiven her trespasses but the boy in room 549 was not a merciful god.