(Short story in 1200 words)
One single tear raced a drop of sweat past runny nose and chattering teeth only to shatter on the dirty concrete floor. Pressed tight against the wall, breath ragged, she braved the last corner and dove for safety beneath the dark recessed shelves.
She held back a sob as she attacked the wall before her, fingers greedily seeking some small flaw, some chink in the armor of her prison. She knew this was the right place, she prayed it was the right time.
And time was passing fast; too fast. She knew they would miss her soon. Thin slippers struggled for purchase as she fought for leverage against the cold cement floor. The pungent fragrance of dirt, blood and chemicals choked her. Dig! Dig faster! Dig better….better dig. She choked back a hysterical laugh at her own bad joke, or was it a scream? Her nails cracked and peeled against the masonry as she fought to dig deeper, find a crack, and her way freedom; freedom and the path to Helaphino.
Her shredded nails caught and finally ripped away and she welcomed the pain. Welcomed and celebrated it as a victory over the nothingness of her life. Pain meant life, life meant hope. She smiled even as small cries escaped her lips and blood flowed freely down her hands. Flowed and dripped into the lap of faded flowers on her threadbare gown.
Far too soon she heard the staccato triumph of an alarm quickly silenced, and now the sobs came. With her whole being she threw herself at her task
“Helaphino.… Helaphino.,” every breath panted out her one and only secret; her private mantra, “Helaphino.” She glanced back furtively, she could almost feel them coming. “Shhh…”, she had to be careful, they couldn’t know she had overheard them; that she now had hope in that one glorious word. A hope just as glorious and just as thin as the days of the gold rush: “Helaphino or Bust ! Helaphino or Die.”
Pouring out heart and soul she fought the barrier, begging for mercy, pleading for the wall to give way. But fate was short on mercy this day and sooner than even she thought possible they found her.
“So,” fingers continued to rattle across the typewriter as the middle-aged nurse absently addressed the young man at her station, “you’re the new Doctor?” She made sure they both knew it wasn’t really a question. She glanced briefly up at him over her readers. Lord a mighty he couldn’t be any older than her youngest son and calling himself a Doctor.
“You’ll be calling me Nurse Louise, we’re a bit less formal on account of the patients, Doctor…”she searched her notes, “Doctor Elders? Elders…humph.” She raised an eyebrow at the obvious pun but the Doctor Boy as she had now forever named him in her mind, didn’t seem to share the humor.
“I’ve been overseeing the night shift for over 17 years. You’ll have 32 cases to start but you’ll need to know them all. Here, I’ll walk you through…,” suddenly the alarm clamored loudly, startling them out of the conversation. Nurse Louise hit the interrupt switch, “Can’t have that thing waking up the whole ward.”
“Is that appropriate? I believe we supposed to wait for assistance with any alarms.”
Nurse Louise took a deep breath, slapped both hands down on the counter between him and stood up slowly closing the distance between them. She didn’t have time to be gracious and the Doctor Boy needed some fast schoolin’.
“Puppy, we have one-hundred forty-seven patients here. Night shift has five nurses and a desk guard who is probably out back right now, smokin’ the weed. I served the 8029 MASH; Korea. That is Mobile. Army. Surgical. Hospital. ‘round here, I am the assistance.”
She looked so hard at him, he flushed scarlet. It would have to do for now.
“C’mon, you bes’ follow me, gonna have our hands full.” Without another word she strode down the hall. He caught up with her as she paused to fill a syringe which she quickly tucked into her white coat pocket. He started to object again but stammered to a stop at her pointed stare.
“Will you at least tell me what’s going on?”
“What’s going on is you need to fetch us a gurney, Doctor Elders, you’ll see soon enough”.
At least he had enough sense to follow orders she thought as he grabbed a nearby gurney and quickly caught up with her again.
Without hesitating she led him down multiple halls; through the deserted cafeteria pausing only to flip on the switch as she threw open the pantry door. There, exposed in the sudden light was the skinniest woman she’d ever seen. Cringing, sobbing and covered in blood, the poor thing seemed to be trying to disappear into the wall behind at her back.
“No, Mama, no…I’ll be good, Mama, please!” the woman’s voice rose to a wail as she ran a bloody hand through her straggly hair, staring at Nurse Louise in terror. “I didn’t mean it, Mama. I didn’t want to let him… to …” her pleas trailed off into tendrils of whimpers, whispers and tears.
“She’s done this before?” Doctor Boy looked a little shaky, but she guessed he had good reason. She watched him struggle to recover his calm demeanor as she leaned over the poor girl.
“Post Traumatic Psychosis. She got herself a right religious mama and a hard-drinking daddy to boot. State found her in a root cellar must be a dozen years ago, trying to dig herself out, just like this.” Carefully, Nurse Louise knelt by the woman, waving the doctor down beside her. She continued her synopsis but now she was crooning the words as she held the woman, rocking her in her arms, gently pulling back her gown to insert the needle, “Oh, you were a smart little girl, now weren’t you, Helen? Sharp as a whip. Probably all of 9 years old when mama put you in that cellar, hmm?”
Nurse Louise continued to croon as she handed Doctor Boy the now empty hypodermic. “Seems our girl had a question ‘bout the Bible being the absolute truth and all. Mama didn’t take it well, thought the girl was demon possessed.”
Gently, they raised her to her feet and onto the gurney. “How long?”
“In the root cellar?” She continued to check the woman’s vitals. “Five, six year’s maybe. Won’t anyone say for sure.”
“Not completely. Mama brought a meal every day ‘cept Sunday. Seems daddy visited too. She’s had a baby.” They started moving the gurney down the hall.
“Dear God, what happened to the baby?”
Helpless tears fell as the sedative stole the last remnants of the Helen’s resolve and strength. Yes…tell him, tell him where they took my baby… say it so I know it’s true, please, just say it again….
And miraculously, Nurse Louise did, in that same echoing way words sound when the sedative kicks in, “Hell-if-I-know.”
“Helaphino.,” she whispered the name, savoring every syllable as she drifted away, content in the knowledge that her baby was alive; alive and waiting in Helaphino..
I wrote this about 3 years ago with the help of my friend Mary Lou Todd. Time do fly, ML, time do fly…