“The best debut Urban Fantasy I’ve read all year. Nightshifted is simply amazing!” –Kat Richardson, bestselling author of the Greywalker series
Welcome to the secret wing of County Hospital—where vampires get transfusions, werewolves have silver allergies, and one nurse is in way over her head…
Nursing school prepared Edie Spence for a lot of things. Burn victims? No problem. Severed limbs? Piece of cake. Vampires? No way in hell. But as the newest nurse on Y4, the secret ward hidden in the bowels of County Hospital, Edie has her hands full with every paranormal patient you can imagine—from vamps and were-things to zombies and beyond…
Edie’s just trying to learn the ropes so she can get through her latest shift unscathed. But when a vampire servant turns to dust under her watch, all hell breaks loose. Now she’s haunted by the man’s dying words—Save Anna—and before she knows it, she’s on a mission to rescue some poor girl from the undead. Which involves crashing a vampire den, falling for a zombie, and fighting for her soul.
Grey’s Anatomy was never like this…
“How can your liver be this good?” I stood outside Mr. November’s room watching him stir restlessly. Normal people couldn’t get 20000 micrograms of Fentanyl and 80 milligrams of Versed an hour and live, much less still be attempting another slow motion escape from their hospital bed.
But I knew Mr. November wasn’t normal. From my assessment, when I’d seen his chipped yellow fangs around his titanium tipped endotracheal tube, from the way he was restrained in bed — six soft cuffs, two on each arm, one on each leg, a posey vest wrapped around his chest and tied beneath the bedframe — and from the fact that he was here on Floor Y4 to begin with. No one here was normal, except for me. I was human and looked it: average brown hair, average blue eyes, average hips. My patients here? Let’s just say “average” was not the first adjective you’d pick for them if you saw them on the streets. Or the twentieth.
Mr. November continued to squirm. I wondered which cheerful member of our daytime staff I’d be giving report to come seven AM with him crawling out of bed behind me. I could almost feel them judging me now.
His IV pump beeped empty and his cuffed right hand made rabbit-punching jabs. Crap.
“Hey you!” I shouted and leaned into his room to try to attract his glazed attention. “Stay still!” I commanded through the door. Sometimes with agitated patients the voice of nursing authority buys time. I dashed to the supply room, unlocked the narcotics drawer, grabbed a bag of Fentanyl and made it back to his room as he started to thrash his head from side to side.
“Stop that!” I hauled on my isolation gear on as fast as I could. If he managed to knock his endotracheal — ET — tube loose, that’d be the end of his ventilator-assisted breathing, which’d be the end of him. I put my gloves on, snatched the bag, and rushed inside. When I silenced the pump alarm’s beeping he visibly calmed.
“You have to stay still, sir. You’ve got pneumonia and you’re in the hospital.” I switched out the bags and reset the pump. I inhaled to say more, but I saw Meaty, my charge nurse, rise up like a moon behind the nursing station outside, holding one thick hand up in the shape of a phone. It was the international nursing gesture for, “Call the doctor?”
I nodded. “More sedation. Now. Please.”
Mr. November’s hands spasmed again. I didn’t know if he was reaching for me with a purpose, if he just wanted to be free, or didn’t understand what was happening — not unlikely, with all the meds he was getting — but I grabbed his nearest hand in both my own. “You’ve got to rest now, okay?” His grip tensed and so did I — most of the training videos I’d watched before starting this job had emphasized the ‘minimal patient contact’ rule, for vastly good reasons — but then he relaxed, letting me go.
I stepped back from the bed, took off my gown and gloves, washed my hands, and went outside.
“You okay there, Edie?” Meaty asked as I returned to sit behind my desk, just outside Mr. November’s door. I grunted a response and flipped open Mr. November’s flowsheet to hide behind. Meaty
didn’t check in on Gina or Charles unless they called for help. But I was new here. Just when I was starting to feel like I knew how to be a nurse at my last job, only a year out of nursing school, my brother overdosed. On heroin. For the third time.
An unknown “friend” (read: dealer) had been kind enough to leave Jake on a curb and call 911, which’d brought him here. By the time I got to the emergency department they were on his second dose of Narcan. They’d put an IV line into his neck because he had too many tracks on his arms to find a vein. Only some cruel miracle had stopped him from getting infected from skin popping this far. If he kept it up, I knew his luck wouldn’t hold.
I wanted to touch him and I didn’t want to touch him, because it didn’t take being a nurse to know all the diseases he might have. And so, as I was finding some gloves to wear to hold his fucking dumbass junkie hand, a man came by and said “Wouldn’t you like to see your brother clean?”
I thought he was going to tell me about Jesus, and I was getting ready to tell him where to shove himself, when he offered me a job.
Before, when I’d worked in a nice private hospital, if someone had done something particularly boneheaded, or exhibited poor nursing judgment, they’d have been asked, “Hey, where do you think you work at, County Hospital?” or, “Looks like you did a County job, to me.”
But what if no one called 911 the next time around? Or Jake ignored a septic sore? Working at County seemed preferable to watching him die, knowing I could have done something to prevent it. I didn’t understand what I was signing away exactly, only that they promised to keep him straight — and unlike all the rehab programs my mom had scrounged to send him too, it’d worked.
So now I really was at County. Only worse. Floor Y4 was for the daytime servants of vampires, sanctioned donors, werewolves, zombies, you name it — and purgatory for us, their staff. We were in the bowels of County, off the records and off the charts. I signed forty things in triplicate, got special badge access to the special elevator and when I took the special ride down, I found myself in an ominous hallway where my badge opened just two doors. One led to our locker rooms and bathroom. The second went here to Y4, an eight bed intensive care ward with an institutionalized appearance: exposed ducts, dim lights, where everything could use a fresh coat of a lighter shade of paint.
Peeking over my flowsheet and into the room, I saw Mr. November at it again, this time kicking himself off the bottom bedrail. “Be still!” I scolded. Reminded anew, he relaxed. That’s the hassle with Versed. Fentanyl’s the narcotic of champions. One hundred times stronger than morphine, it would block out all your pain. Versed’s an amnesiac. On the plus side, it helps patients forget the horror of having an ET tube sit in their lungs and a ventilator helping them breathe. On the downside, it means that every time you warn them they have Tubes In That They Should Not Pull On, that that warning has a half-life of about thirty seconds before they forget and try pulling again.
“Meaty, any word?” I asked, as Mr. November switched gears and tried to reach his ET tube, one millimeter at a time.
Meaty gave a negating grunt. While Meaty was likely not Meaty’s actual name, he or she was Y4′s charge nurse, which meant they were the resident expert on all nursing related chores, the general patient coordinator, and our physician liaison. With an androgynous face and an abdominal drape that almost reached the floor, Meaty brought scrubs from home to accommodate his or herself, the bathroom in the locker room wasn’t sexed, and I hadn’t had the balls yet, metaphorically, to ask.
Frustrating as it was, it wasn’t Meaty’s fault the doctor hadn’t called back. They probably wouldn’t ever call back, and Mr. November would be squirrely all night.
“Damn.” I flipped through the nursing chart to write another note on the restraint form, choosing “restless” and “continually pulling,” for Mr. November’s past hour of activities. Too bad there wasn’t a form for my opinion on the state of things — I would have written “bleak” and “under supported by other hospital staff.” I hoped the call had woken the doctor up.
Even though he’d been here for a few days, Mr. November’s chart was mostly empty, except for his tox screen. The emergency department here surreptitiously checks people for various conditions — such as “porphyric hemophilia” (likely vampire-exposed), “leprosy” (likely zombies), “rabies” (likely were), and “sisters of junkies who were suckers” (me). Everything else, all of our plans, treatments, and patient response, was unofficial. But surely some actual records were kept somewhere, if only for accounting’s sake. The drugs we used alone must cost a fortune. And even if my fellow nurses were getting paid just as poorly as I was, someone was footing our bill. The only thing in other charts that gave me any clues was the patient information page saying patients belonged to a health insurance group I’d never heard of before, the Consortium.
But not Mr. November — we didn’t even have his real name. Hence being named for the month. He’d been found outside, dehydrated with a kicking case of pneumonia, too run down to move. He looked eighty. Thin white skin hung in empty folds around his sharp features, like ice melt off a glacier, so thin that lifting tape wrong would tear it. During my assessment I could smell the bad breath of a body going metabolically awry. He had a central line going into the femoral vein on his thigh, channeling in medications and, of course, blood.
Not because he’d bled out — but because technically he’s almost a vampire. Not a full one, but a “vampire-exposed human”, some real vampire’s daytimer.
Despite all the legends about instantaneous infection, it usually takes repeated exposure to vampire blood for it to change you — assuming you weren’t allergic and didn’t just die instantly from anaphylactic shock.
Mr. November had been exposed to a lot of vampire blood at some point in time. His fang-like canine teeth, which I could see now as he tried to work his ET tube out with his tongue, meant he had to have come close to changing. I wondered why nobody had ever finished the job and wished they had; it would have saved me this night of work. Because now, even though he was probably three hundred and twelve, vampire blood having life-extending properties, he could still die on my watch. People who’ve been exposed live long, but they aren’t full vampires, they don’t get to live forever. As if fighting this fact, Mr. November started leaning forward in bed again.
I went back in the chart to see what medications I could give him. He was maxed for now, but come 4 AM, if Dr. Turnas hadn’t called back, I planned to reintroduce him to my friends Ativan and Oxycodone in a big, big way.
Charles walked over from his side of the ward. His patients were asleep or quietly watching TV. “Need any help, new kid?”
I was fairly sure Charles knew my name by now, and just as sure that it wasn’t worth letting it get to me. “Not unless you’re hiding an extra bag of Fentanyl,” I said. He laughed. Charles was my height and older, with brown hair turning grey. I’d noticed that no matter how hectic the night felt to me, Charles never let it show. I was jealous of his ability to keep his act together, but I’d like him more if he didn’t pretend I was twelve.
“You’ll be fine, new kid.” Charles said, but he wasn’t looking at me. I followed his gaze to see Mr. November making plucking gestures with his right hand. I thought Mr. November was reaching for his IV despite the pillow I’d placed in his way, until all but one of his fingers curled inward, leaving only his pointer out. He started to move it deliberately. Spelling things. I groaned.
“Stay out,” Charles advised. Mr. November didn’t stop.
“He’s trying to communicate,” I said.
“Just because he’s trying to doesn’t mean he can.”
Which was true. Most times patients would scribble off the page and onto themselves, if they had enough reach. But then again, a few could tell you if they were cold, or hot, if they wanted the lights on or the TV off. You’d be surprised what people can obsess on when they’re doped up and have nothing else to do. Once a guy told me in Spanish that he wasn’t getting enough “aire.” I did a blood gas to check, and he’d been right.
My patient, my call. I grabbed paper from the copier, a Sharpie, and a clipboard, and suited up to see.
Because working on Y4 is like being in a hybrid ward for biohazards, trauma, and psych, isolation gear carts sit outside each room. They’re equipped with gowns, face masks, hair nets, and gloves, just like every other isolation cart you’d find in County, until you get to the CO2 propelled tranquilizer rifles loaded with suxamethonium chloride darts in their top drawer. During training when I asked why we didn’t have garlic and crosses, I was told that garlic doesn’t work, and the Consortium doesn’t allow vampire-specific discrimination.
I pulled my gloves on and gave Charles what I hoped was a sorry-for-ignoring-you shrug, before walking in.
The same badge that granted access to the elevator and locker rooms triggers the light set over Mr. November’s door, so Meaty will know where I am if there’s a lockdown. Charles knows where I am too, and is unimpressed, leaning on the doorway behind me.
“Okay, sir. Do me proud.” I removed both the restraints on Mr. November’s right hand, positioned the pen in it, then braced the clipboard upright for him against the pillow. “Are you in pain?”
I couldn’t imagine that he was, but he was still awake. He ignored my prompt, and began working on a laborious capital A.
“Do you need to have a bowel movement? Want the TV on? Lights off?” I ran through my routine, while he made three — no, four — N’s in a row. Typical intubated patient. I sighed. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Charles smirking.
I launched into my stock speech number three.
“It’s two AM in the morning on Sunday, November twenty-ninth.” And I’d been working straight through since Thanksgiving, courtesy of being the newest nurse and a desperate need for holiday pay. “I know it’s frustrating when you can’t communicate, but you’re in the hospital. We’re taking good care of you.” I reached out and patted his arm. “Save your strength and rest.”
He finished another letter, a lowercase a. I took the clipboard from him.
“Annnna…Anna?” I sounded out aloud, and he nodded, tubes and all. A small triumph, potentially imaginary. “I’ll see if we can contact her for you.” The light of human connection — or whatever passed for it here — flashed in his eyes and his lips curved into a smile. If I didn’t know he had fangs and was getting a rhino-killing dose of narcotics, he’d look like any other elderly patient. I took the pen from his hand and his eyes closed.
Then the Versed pump started beeping. I hit the alarm silence button, and looked imploringly out to Charles.
He rolled his eyes at me. He would have never gowned up to come into a patient’s room and not brought in the medication they were almost sure to run out of next. “I’m on it.”
“Thanks,” I said, and gave him a winning smile hidden by my mask. I hit the alarm silence button a few more times and when Charles brought me the Versed, I hung it as quickly as possible before sneaking back out of the room.
“So Meaty –” I held Mr. November’s clipboard out over the nursing station desk like it was proof of something. “This guy — no word on him yet?”
Meaty shook a large hand in an indeterminate fashion. “Sorry Edie. We sent his photo out to all the Thrones.”
I looked at the clipboard and sighed. At least with patients at my last job I could make assumptions. I used to know that when someone had too high a drug tolerance, or too low a pain tolerance, that maybe they’d been a user back in the day. Here at Y4 — maybe they’re a werewolf? Or weretiger. Or weremanatee. I snorted. Gina down the hall was a vet and an RN, in charge of the were-corrals in rooms one and two. I knew someone was in one now, because they were howling. Last night was the full moon. We kept track of that here.
Mr. November might be completely new to town, since the local vampire Thrones hadn’t jumped to claim him. It’d take longer to figure out which Throne he belonged to the further he was afield. Maybe vampires only put out missing vampire bulletins at night.
“He doing okay?” Meaty asked. I didn’t know if Meaty thought I would hurt patients by my mere presence, or if I gave off a bad nurse aura. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the repeated check-ins, I just didn’t like feeling like I must need them all the time.
“He’s fine, I’m fine, everything’s fine,” I said, with just a touch of sarcasm. Meaty squinted at me, then went back to ordering morning labs on the computer.
The desk between Meaty and I had the telemetry monitor on it, a computer screen that showed all the vitals from all the occupied rooms, in coded colors. Heart rhythms were largest, in bright green, and when alarms sounded these were usually to blame. It was hard to keep lead stickers on squirming patients who were sometimes slick with sweat. So when an alarm sounded, I glanced over, wondering who’d flat-lined momentarily while scratching themselves.
But none of the green waves changed, and the alarm went on. Mr. November’s corner of the screen lit up. I leaned in closer, actually reading numbers. After the obligatory oh-shit-second, Meaty looked up, and I saw Mr. November’s oxygenation saturation go from an acceptable 92%, to a potentially emphysemic 85%, to an incompatible with life 40%.
“Wake him up!” Meaty yelled.
“On it!” I leapt and ran around the station to his room, racing inside without gear.
I stood there for a second, overwhelmed. I’d left his right hand unrestrained, and Mr. November’d pulled his ET tube out. Inadequate ventilation = certain death. The heart monitor over his bed warned atrial fib, before its green line dove flat.
Charles blazed past me at a speed walk. He slammed the bed into CPR mode, and pointed at me. “Ambu bag, now!”
I swallowed and nodded and pulled it off the wall. It felt like it took me an hour to assemble the pieces, to shove the face mask and bag together, the one that was supposed to be breathing for Mr. November, but wasn’t until I finished the fucking job. I managed it, and shoved the bag over Mr. November’s open mouth.
Which reflexively closed.
On my left thumb.
I yanked my thumb out, catching it on his teeth, and put my fingers under his jaw for a better seal.
I hadn’t even seen Gina come in, but there she was, with epinephrine from the crash cart. Charles was already performing CPR. Meaty began counting cycles.
“Fifty-nine — switch!”
I vaulted onto the bed to straddle Mr. November, pumping with my injured hand, trying to pretend he didn’t just bite me, that a motherfucking daytimer did not just bite me. What if the tests we ran were wrong? What if he was infected? What if it didn’t take repeated exposure? My thoughts flowed in time with my CPR, and just like his ribs, they resisted at first, then relented with a sickening crunch.
“Epi!” Meaty announced. I saw Gina push it.
Mr. November bucked beneath me, dislodging the ambu bag, sending the titanium-tipped ET tube by his head clattering to the floor. He stared at me, hard.
“Save her!” he commanded — but he was only mouthing the words. He’d shredded his vocal chords when he extubated himself. “Save her!” he mouthed again, before collapsing beneath me, expiring.
I sat there on his chest in shock. And then — the movies sometimes got this part right at least — he went from what’d once been a living, breathing thing, to a dough, then a dust. He crumpled in on himself, leaving a dark soot-colored stain on the insides of my thighs. All of the rest of his tubes and restraints fell and landed where they would have been were he an anatomically correct ash sculpture, something stolen from Pompeii. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, or what to do next — I sat there stunned, before dismounting with excessive care. Meaty, Charles, Gina — they were all staring at me, silent.
“Can’t the Shadow-things fix this?” I asked, my voice rising. The Shadows were some mystical protection for our floor, or so I’d been led to believe in training. I hadn’t seen them myself, but I’d write Santa Claus and clap my hands for fairies right now if I thought it would help.
“Nope,” Charles answered and my shoulders slumped. He pointed at the remnants of Mr. November’s hand. “Wasn’t he supposed to be restrained?”
I nodded and Charles shook his head. “Awwww, new kid.”
“I’ll need an incident report,” Meaty said, dismissing the whole situation with a head shake. “Gina, stay here and show her what to do for the coroner.”
My mouth went dry. I’d killed a man. My mistake killed him. No — not a normal man, a daytimer, a vampire servant, and likely already alive way past his normal life span. But — he’d looked like a human, and he’d felt like a human, and he’d died, because of me.
A tall man I’d never seen before came up behind Meaty. His embroidered lab coat read “Dr. Emmanuel Turnas” in red thread italics. “You rang?”
“More sedation. Please,” Meaty said, without the hint of a smile.
“Don’t breathe the dust. It’s bad for you and it’s flammable.” Gina put my mask on me while I stood there, numb. She was my age or younger, I couldn’t tell, and Hispanic with dark caramel skin and straight black hair. Stylish bangs went from short at her right temple down to chin length at her left cheek. She’d probably be pretty if I ever got to see her smile. I suspected she wouldn’t start today.
I swallowed and nodded. “Down here, yeah. And ever. That too.”
“I could tell.” She stared me down and then her gaze softened with pity. “You know, the last nurse who did something like that here died. I liked her a lot, too.” I didn’t even know how to respond as she went on. “So look at it that way — you lived, right?”
“Yeah. Right,” I said, my voice flat. If I hadn’t gotten cocky and undone his wrist, if I’d ignored him — if he’d just behaved!
Gina ducked under the bed and unfastened the empty posey vest. “Did you learn something?”
“Don’t kill people?” I mouthed off — sarcasm being my best defense against crying — and instantly regretted it.
She rose and frowned. “Will it make you a better nurse?”
I sure as hell hoped so. “Yes.”
“Well then. Good.” She opened the drawers containing Mr. November’s personal items. “It’s a hospital, new –” I inhaled to complain, just as her eyes found my badge. “Edie. Sometimes accidents happen. He was agitated and under sedated.” She pulled out a huge black overcoat. “If Dr. Turnas believed us every time we told him patients were crawling out of bed, or if God forbid he was here himself to see it–”
I blinked. “You mean this happens a lot?”
“About once a year.” She shrugged. “No one believes nightshift.”
I wasn’t sure how that was supposed to make me feel better, but this conversation would be shorter if I pretended it did. “Great, I guess.” It was only then that I remembered my hand. It ached where Mr. November had bitten me. I snuck a look while Gina went through his coat pockets. I couldn’t even see where he’d broken the skin, if he had. But a flat purple bruise was growing, tracking the passage where his teeth had been.
“Well, this is interesting,” Gina said.
I looked up, quickly hiding my left hand behind my back. Gina held two small bottles, with crude red nail polish crosses on their sides.
Gina spritzed the air and sniffed. “Unknown vintage, and who can say what it was cut with?” She handed them to me and I took them with my good hand. “Put them in the incinerator box.”
The glass bottles clinked in my palm. They were repurposed cologne bottles — my mom used to sell Avon, I recognized the styles. “Why would a vampire have holy water?” I asked.
“Maybe he was unpopular?” She shrugged.
I could sympathize. I peeked at my hand and thought I saw the bruise on my bad hand beginning to spread. It might just be in my head, but — “Um, Gina?” I said, interrupting her search of his pants.
I held out my injured hand. “He bit me.”
Gina squinted. She ran her gloved thumb over my naked skin, feeling for the telltale rough edge of torn skin. “That was dumb.”
“I know.” I watched her inspect my injury and wished she’d say something comforting.
“Looks like a bruise for now. Keep an eye on it.” She released my hand. “You didn’t get any of his blood on you, right? So you’re probably not exposed.”
Probably fine? Was that good enough? Not where matters of my potentially becoming a vampire were at stake. But I bit my tongue and nodded like that was good news as she left the room, leaving me alone with a corpse.
I finished the rest of my charting and waited for the coroner to arrive. When he got there, he was a dour looking man in a dark suit. The only color on him was a tie-tack, a bright green Christmas wreath over an American flag. Maybe he had one for every season — perhaps I’d missed the flag-waving Thanksgiving turkey by mere days. He wore a canister vacuum under one arm, and in one hand he carried a package of vacuum bags.
I followed him into the room wearing just a mask and gloves and collected Mr. November’s belongings to follow his vacuum bags into the afterlife. Shoes, shirt, the pants that Gina dropped — and the pocket of these, a lump. I reached in and found a silver pocket watch. On the back of it, in a florid script, was a golden letter A.
Nurses are natural kleptos. You don’t want to be in a room without enough supplies, so every time you walk past the med-cart you pocket another saline flush. By the end of the shift you can look like a chipmunk if you’re not careful. Some days it’s hard to remember that the gum at the end of the grocery checkout isle isn’t there just for you.
From beside me, the coroner began. The vacuum cleaner’s sound made me jump, and I had only a moment to decide what to do with the watch. I could announce that I had it, and then what — trust the coroner to turn it in? He’d probably trade it in for another tie-tack. Mr. November’s death was my mistake, and the burden of figuring out who to give the watch to belonged to me. Staring at Mr. November’s pile of diminishing ashes I put the watch in my scrubs’ pocket, next to the bottles of cologne.
I waited until the coroner finished, as Mr. November was swept away. He’d probably lived for hundreds of years, until he caught pneumonia and met me. It would be nice to pretend that the pneumonia was where things had gone wrong, but I knew the truth. I finished my charting with a sinking stomach, then put all the paperwork on the nurse station ledge.
I didn’t have to stick around to give report to dayshift. There’s no report to give when your patient’s become dead.
I never turn my cell phone off. Not even when I’m asleep, after working the night before. I tell myself it’s because I want to be available if the County calls to offer extra shifts, but the real reason is that I’m afraid they’ll call after I’ve gone home, to ask me some important question, to remind me of something I should have done that I forgot to do or chart. And/or fire me. On the phone. I know I can sound a little paranoid, but it felt plausible today.
My voicemail message says I work nights and sleep days. Everyone who knows me, knows this. And still, people who aren’t employed at the Nursing Office feel compelled to call me before 3 PM. Certain people feel compelled to call me repeatedly, until I pick up — namely, dicks.
I sent three calls to voicemail and then gave up and answered on the fourth.
“Hello?” I croaked.
“Edie — Edie, I need money.”
And I already knew who it was. “No Jake.”
“Aw, come on, Edie…”
“I have these things called student loans.” I blinked beneath my blindfold and rubbed it up onto my forehead. “Not to mention taxes. Lots of taxes.”
My brother made an exasperated sound. He doesn’t know what I’ve done for him. At least it wasn’t the floor calling me, to tell me to not come in ever again –
The events of last night came rushing back. Jake was asking me something but I didn’t hear him — all my concentration was on my left hand and the bruise upon it. I’d killed a patient. My patient. A daytimer — but still my patient. Any chance of sleep evaporated like cool alcohol off of warm skin.
“Edie? Are you listening?”
I yanked off my blindfold. Had the bruise changed shape? I couldn’t remember. I leaned over my bed and rummaged through last night’s scrubs to find a Sharpie. Mr. November’s watch fell out, along with alcohol swabs and an empty bottle of Heparin.
“Come on Edie –” my brother continued, just as whiny as every other patient I’ve ever had who knows that they are “allergic” to anything less than Oxycontin.
“I said no, Jake. No means no.” I braced the phone against my shoulder and traced the margins of my bruise in Sharpie so I could see if it expanded later.
“Some help you are,” he said with exasperation.
“I wish you knew,” I muttered, as he hung up on me. Finished with my personal arts and crafts project, I dropped the phone, and picked up the watch.
It looked old. The inlaid golden A remained clear, but any finer details on its silver case had been rubbed smooth by time. I found the latch with my thumbnail and swung it open.
A photo was inside the lid, old if it was legit. A family portrait in sepia: two men, a woman, and two children, a boy and a girl. I guessed one of the men could have been Mr. November, give or take a hundred years. The men had strangely shaped hats, and the women wore kerchiefs on their heads.
Which one was Anna? The woman or the child? I stroked my discolored thumb over their miniature faces.
The watch itself was ticking. It might be worth as much as a student loan payment if I sold it on Ebay. Which…maybe I’d do eventually, if I couldn’t figure out who it belonged to. It wasn’t like I could call up Antiques Roadshow — “Hi, I stole this off an elderly patient…where did it come from?”. Who was I kidding, thinking I was Nancy Drew? I flipped the watch back and forth in my hands, its silver glinting in the morning light. I knew I didn’t want closure. I wanted absolution.
An edge of the photo stuck out, rough against my thumb. I worked to pry the photo loose. It popped out and fluttered to land face down on my floor — and the words, “Reward if returned,” stared up at me. I picked up the photo again.
A series of addresses were written in a tight script. All of them were crossed out except the last: “336 Glade St. Apt 12.” With surprise, I realized I recognized the address. I’d driven my brother to that street once and pretended to not watch him score.
My cat, Minnie, jumped onto the windowsill. “What are the chances that it’s the same place? In this city?” I asked her. She contemplated me with crossed blue eyes. “What are the chances that if I go there, they’ll steal my car?”
“That’s about what I thought.” But it was still daylight, and there was always the train.
The train ride gave me just enough time to feel foolish. My coat was bulky but not worth stealing, my boots had steel toes, and my money was in my bra along with a credit card. I hoped my best “don’t fuck with me” look would do the rest — that and Mr. November’s bottles, which I carried in my pockets like guns in hip holsters, one to each side.
The train shuddered to a stop and I was the only one to exit. Outside the station the buildings were tall, and the snow had an oily sheen. I passed a few tenements, ignored a few offers, and waited until Seventh before turning onto Glade.
Glade has not been a glade since forever. Mr. November’s address was a single shorter building, surrounded by giants on both sides. I rang the bell.
A woman who might have predated World War I appeared on the far side of the door. She squinted at me through a broken window pane, a cigarette lolling from her mouth. “Yeah? What?”
I hadn’t realized until that very moment that I didn’t have much of a plan. Hopefully someone lived here who remembered him, and I could hand the off the watch. I wouldn’t assume a daytimer had relatives, but I’d take anyone, from that Anna person, to an affectionate neighbor down the hall. Maybe the kids next-door looked up to him.
Funny how much life you could wedge into someone else when you didn’t know anything about them at all.
“I, um… That is, an older tenant here — his condition is grave.” Which was understating the situation quite a bit. “Does he have a next of kin? Someone named Anna?” She squinted at the name.
“Not that I know of.” Her eyes narrowed even further. “You from the hospital?”
I nodded, even though I didn’t have anything on me to prove that I was from the hospital, other than a set of plastic gloves in my chest pocket. Nurses and chipmunks.
I held a limp glove up. “I need to get emergency contact information from him. If you could –” I suggested, hoping she’d fill in the rest.
“Yeah yeah. I seen House before. If I don’t let you in, you’ll just break in later.”
Metal creaked and clicked while she undid the locks. I pulled on the blue latex gloves.
“I appreciate your cooperation,” I said.
“His rent’s good through the fifteenth. Any longer than that, and I’ll evict him. And tell him I won’t store his stuff.”
She took my measure again. “Hang on.” She left me waiting in the door way until she came back with three brown paper envelopes, addressed to this address. One said Andrei Tarkovsky, the other Novaya Zemlya, the third Trofim Lysenko, each with different handwriting.
“I know there’s not three people living up there. But I’m not snoopy. That’s why people like to pay me rent.”
I suspected if there were three people living up there, and the lease had only room for one, she was the type who wouldn’t let it slide. I put the envelopes into my pocket and she let me in.
“If you find some weird fungus, I don’t wanna know.” She paused and reconsidered. “Maybe I want to know, but don’t tell the other tenants.” I nodded, and she stepped away from the door. “That guy’s on time with the rent, but there’s something wrong about him, you know?”
I nodded again. After all, she was right.
As I walked up the slumping stairs, past apartment doors with loud children and louder TVs behind them, I supposed I should be grateful to House. I’d only been able to watch it until I’d started nursing school and actually hung around a hospital. After that, the idea of a doctor doing lab draws and hanging IV bags was preposterous. They didn’t even know how the pumps worked.
I reached Mr. November’s apartment and knocked on the door. “Hello?” I tried the handle, it wasn’t locked. Would a vampire ever bother to lock their door? Wouldn’t they encourage Jehovah’s Witnesses? Unlikely in this neighborhood, but a vampire could dream, right?
I reached inside the door and flipped on the lightswitch. The few working lights illuminated dirt created from the kind of privacy that only consistently on-time rent could guarantee. A low table crowded the entryway, surface cluttered with knick-knacks. Cobwebs stretched out from these like lonely neurons seeking company, and I knew one thing Mr. November hadn’t had –- a dust allergy.
“Hello?” I repeated, making a right turn off the hallway. I found a small kitchen with an old refrigerator. I pulled the lever action handle and peeked inside.
Unwise. Bags upon bags of cats in various states of decomposition were neatly stacked and labeled, like an honors bio class had recently vacated the room. My stomach didn’t turn, but I was extremely grateful for my gloves as I slammed the door shut.
That…was a lot of cats for just one daytimer. And on Y4, I’d never seen a cat on a dinner tray.
“Hello?” I tried again. “Anna?”
I could leave now. No one would know I’d been here. It wasn’t like some other vampire was going to go to the police and report me. “She just walked in and looked at my dead cat collection, officer.” I was, so far, still safe.
And it was still daylight, wasn’t it? Y4 was underground to protect its patient population. So if there was another vampire here, they’d be asleep. Unless it was a daytimer with a two cat a day habit.
“Hello?” I tried again. “I’m from the hospital –” I announced, walking further in. There was an open closet in the hallway, taped shut around the edges of its sliding doors, with an empty sleeping bag upon its floor. That was a relief — unless it was his spare bedroom. I turned a corner, trying to be prepared for anything.
Of course, that didn’t work. Because sometimes, nothing can prepare you.