By Shahan Cheong
“I’m sorry Dr. Harrison…he didn’t make it,” said the nurse.
Doctor Harrison nodded. He lit up a Camel and followed the nurse down the corridor, the grey wisps of cigarette-smoke trailing behind him.
“Where is he?” the doctor asked.
“In the mortuary…they moved him already…”
“That quick, huh…okay.”
Doctor and nurse headed down to the mortuary, taking the stairs because the lifts were too congested.
“Here he is,” she said. She pulled the man out and the doctor examined the corpse.
The corpse lying on the tray was once a man; six feet tall with brown hair, green eyes and a good physique. When age was important, he was thirty-six.
“How many does that make?” the doctor asked.
“I don’t want to know,” said the nurse.
“You don’t want to, or you just don’t?”
“Both, I suppose.”
The body was cold. Very cold. It had been on ice, literally, for the last hour and a half. His skin was white and slightly blue-tinged. His hair was a sort of light brown now, not the dark chocolaty brown it once was. Harrison looked at the long black scar running from the man’s collarbone, down his chest to his belly-button. The scar was made of black thread, and the opening which the thread tried to hold shut had revealed to the other doctors what they all knew; that the man had been another victim of the dreaded Spanish Flu. The lungs underneath would be spongy and pus-filled. Filled with pus, with blood, with mucus. If one were to take a scalpel and slice it open, one would be overcome by the stench. This man had quite literally drowned in his own fluids.
“You’re not staying late AGAIN, are you?”
“Yes, I’m staying late again,” said Harrison into the phone.
“But you PROMISED! And it’s little Tony’s birthday!”
“Tell him I’ll see him later.”
“Now come on!”
“Mary I said I can’t come home! You knew I was like this when you married me. I’m a doctor, I have to go out at all kinds of hours and I have to work late!”
Harrison groaned. He put the earpiece back on the hook and pushed his phone away from him. This was the last thing he needed; more evidence that his marriage was going to fall apart. Of course he loved Mary, if he didn’t love her, he would never have married her, but lately things were just going downhill. The outbreak of flu had ripped his marriage apart. Spending night after night, week after week at the hospital was distancing him from his wife. He tried to show her that he loved her by doing the usual stuff; buying flowers, trying to spend evenings alone with her, trying to convince her that he wasn’t just hiding out at the hospital, but nothing worked. The last thing he needed was a divorce, with little Anthony only eight years old. Tony would tell anyone who’d listen, about how many times in the past four months that his father and mother had been fighting. It depressed everyone, and that was the last thing that a little boy had to concern himself with.
“Honey…” Mary said, “why are you doing this?”
“Relax,” Harrison said, “you were the one who was complaining I wasn’t spending any time with you…”
“But not like this, Albert!”
“Can you think of something better?”
“I rest my case.”
Little Tony wandered around the hospital restaurant. The kitchens were at one end, and a large pair of double-doors was at the other. In between was a jungle of tables and chairs and legs. The nurses watched as the boy wandered around, saying “hi” to the nurses and the orderlies and the other doctors. He could hear all kinds of noises; typewriters, test-tubes, sizzling and clanking from the kitchen, the squeaking of gurney-wheels from the hallway outside, the tinkling of piano-keys from the hospital restaurant as someone tried meagrely to enliven the gloomy atmosphere with music.
“Listen, this is the best I can do, okay?” Harrison hissed, “I can’t leave here and come home every night, and you know it. Now the best you can do is to try and…”
“But there are other doctors in this hospital, why can’t you work in shifts?” Mary asked.
“We do, and I got stuck on the ten-to-ten shift. I can’t help that! Besides, I’m home during the morning…”
“Barely. You wake up, you get dressed, shave, wash, have breakfast and then catch the El to work.”
Harrison sighed. This was obviously not going to work. Mary got up and took Tony by the hand.
“Come on, Tony…” she said, and led him out of the hospital.
“Is daddy okay?” he asked.
“Is anybody these days okay?” she asked, “I don’t know, Tony…I really don’t know.”
Dr. Harrison coughed. It’d two weeks since he’d had that disastrous conversation with Mary in the hospital restaurant, and things were only getting worse. He shivered and coughed again. The hospital was overrun by walking corpses, with nurses and doctors running after them. Soon, he would join the ranks of the living-dead, but he had no desire to leave this world coughing his lungs out. He had the flu, and he knew it. He’d had it for the last three days, and had been staying in the hospital during the night because of it. He wasn’t going to go home and endanger his family. He coughed again and his body’s gag-reflex kicked into action. Shoving away his chair, he ran to the sink and vomited violently. A sort of slimy liquid hit the white porcelain. It was off-white with specks of red. It didn’t trickle away. It sort of slithered into the hole in the middle of the sink, like a blob of misshapen jelly with grease on it’s underside. Harrison grimaced and returned to his desk. He picked up his pen and dipped it into the ink-well, finishing off what he was doing on his desk. He folded the sheet of paper and stuffed it into a drawer in his desk. The person whom it was addressed to would come along eventually and find it and read it. The last anyone heard of Dr. Harrison was a clatter, a slither of rope and a loud creaking noise…
“I’m sorry, Harrison, but that’s it.”
“Listen…I know you don’t like going there, but that’s the only place I can put you right now…now go on…”
Patrolman Tony Harrison left the precinct and headed out into the streets of Manhattan. Couples, singles and families bustled by him on the pavement, and cars growled past in the street, churning up water and splashing it up onto the sidewalk. Tony shivered and rubbed his hands together. He turned the corner, stopped, and looked around.
So this was his beat.
From six o’clock to eight o’clock pm, until such time as another beat was assigned to him, Harrison seemed doomed to walk the streets of the Upper East Side, looking for crime. At least he was in a good neighbourhood; filled with rich people and fancy shops and big-name buildings. He strolled up 5th Avenue, spinning his nightstick around in his hands. Sure, it was a richer part of town…but that only meant that there was more stuff to pinch. Tony knew from experience that pinchability did not decline just because a cop was on his beat…it just meant it happened the moment the officer had reached the end of the street and had turned the corner, by which time, a man’s shout, a woman’s scream, a gunshot or screeching tyres, would either be unheard, or heard too late for the officer to render any assistance. Tony shivered and pulled his collar up over his neck, until the stiffened edges were brushing his cheeks. His boots clunked quietly on the pavement as he kept walking. A woosh of steam from a vent in the road obscured the lights of shopfronts and streetlamps and Tony walked into it, allowing the mist to swallow him up.
Suddenly, two gunshots, a woman’s scream, the screeching of car-tyres! Wait; there’s no shouting man…Oh never mind. Tony twisted around and saw two men rush out of a shop, one of them was holding a bag. They both dived into a car and took off. A warbling, shrill “Chrrreeeeeep!” of a police-whistle floated dismally through the noisy street, drowned out by car-horns and shouting people. Another cop was running after the car. Tony pulled out his gun and fired, going for the tires. He missed, and the car ran a red light.
“Oh to hell with it!” he grumbled. Holstering his gun, he ran as fast as he could. The car skidded and crashed into a streetlamp. The two men jumped out and ran for the doors of a towering old Victorian-style building, made of a sort of light-grey stone. They kicked down the doors and rushed inside.
“Hey Tony! Come on!” the other cop shouted. Tony rushed after him, past the smashed up Ford and up the steps. On the last step, Tony tripped and fell flat on his face…
…He was eight years old again. The room was bright and white and airy. Ladies wearing funny white costumes and men wearing strange white suits walked back and forth, in and out. Beds on wheels were shoved from door to door and through long, never-ending corridors. A strange noise could be heard outside and the men and women in white started scurrying like ants. Tony got up and turned around. The street was filled with people walking, horses and carts, hansom cabs, Model-T Fords and curious vans which let out a curious wailing noise. Tony turned around again and blinked…
“What the hell is wrong with me?” he grumbled. The room was dark. Behind him, the doors had swung shut again. He got up and started walking around. He pulled out his flashlight and turned it on.
Tony stopped and looked around.
“Tony! There you are, come on, I think they went this way,” said the other cop.
“Jesus Mike, where’d you get to?” Tony asked.
“I ran ahead, then I saw you weren’t behind me. They have to be here somewhere.”
Together, the two men kept walking, their shoes making soft thudding noises on the dusty old linoleum flooring. Suddenly…a clatter, a quickly stifled profanity and Tony and Mike shrank back, turning off their light.
A door to their left burst open and two men rushed out, firing blindly to their right. Tony and Mike threw themselves against the walls and then took off after them. Michael fired up the stairwell. The gunshots and the ‘ping’ of spent slugs bounced off the walls and clattered down the stairs with a soft ‘drrrrrr…plink!’
“Shit!” he groaned, “come on…they can’t get far. This place doesn’t have any working elevators.”
Together, the two brave upholders of the law made their way up the stairs. The two-man stampede that had gone before them had kicked up a whole heap of dust, which now hung in the air like cigar-smoke. Tony sneezed…
Everything looked so much bigger. When you’re barely five feet tall, things get like that. Tony looked around and his mouth dropped open. Those men and women in white were back again! And those strange beds on wheels lined the sides of the corridor. A body lay on each one of these moveable beds, evidenced by flapping gowns or the odd listless limb dangling over the side. The smell was strong and sort of musty. Not the dusty sort of smell…but the sort of stale, and yet fresh smell…of antiseptic sprays. Here and there, women and men dressed in…clothes…were standing over the beds, crying, holding onto handkerchiefs, hands, or the frame of a door, to stop themselves from falling over. Tony shuddered. The stench of death hung in the air like bubbles did over the bathtub. It lingered, it floated, it came and went. When it was gone, you could smell the refreshing, sweet smell of scented soap and bath-oils. When death was gone, you could smell the stench of rotting that it had left behind.
“Daddy…” Tony said. He looked around. He saw another man, this one was wearing a dark suit. He was looking around.
“Tony…are you alright?”
“You look a little queasy…are you allergic to dust or something?” Michael asked.
“No no…I’m fine…” Tony sneezed loudly.
“So where are those guys?” Tony asked.
“I dunno, they’re running everywhere, now come on, we need to stick together, this place is huge and I don’t want to get lost.”
Together, the two officers scanned the first floor. Nothing. Footprints in the dust told them where the men had gone, though. Slowly, the progressed further up.
“Oh fuck!” Michael screamed. He ducked and the bullet missed him by inches! He reached around the corner of the corridor and grabbed the man by the hand. Together, criminal and cop wrestled for the gun. Tony pulled out his revolver and aimed it. He fired and missed. Michael grunted and shoved the crook against the wall. He unclipped his handcuffs from around his belt and was about to lock the man up when he jabbed his elbow into Michael’s stomach, he reeled back. The crook twisted around and raised his gun but Tony beat him to it. He emptied the remaining three bullets into the man’s chest and watched as he collapsed to the ground. The sound of the man’s automatic pistol clattering on the ground reverberated off the walls.
“You alright?” Tony asked. Michael nodded. He picked up his handcuffs and put them back on his belt.
“What a mess…” said Michael.
“Don’t worry,” said Tony, “the proper place for him is downstairs. It won’t be hard to get him there.”
“Two more floors,” Tony said. “The other guy has to be on one of them.”
“Okay…You lead the way.”
“With no ammo, are you crazy? You go first!”
“Fine…give me the light.”
Handing Michael the torch, the two men headed upstairs again. Tony rolled the cylinder of his service-revolver out, picked out the empty cartridges and tossed them into an old fire-bucket. He reloaded the gun and put it back into it’s holster.
A muffled clicking noise fell upon Tony’s ears. He put his finger to his lips and pointed to a trail of footprints. Michael nodded. Tony followed the trail. They turned right, off the corridor, and through a pair of double-doors. Tony stepped in and looked around.
He gasped and struggled. The second crim had been hiding behind the door and had wrapped an old blind-cord around Tony’s throat. Tony smashed his gun-butt into the man’s face about three of four times. His attacker howled in pain and Tony and Michael tackled the man to the ground and handcuffed him. Michael opened the bag. Five-hundred dollars in cash and a small selection of jewellery; what a haul. Michael snapped the bag shut and led the man downstairs.
“Aren’t you coming, Tony?” Michael asked.
“Later…” Tony said. Michael took the man downstairs.
Tony rubbed his neck. It was like having a sore-throat all over the outside of your neck, instead of inside it. After rolling his head around a bit to loosen up his muscles, Tony walked slowly around the room. He stopped a rectangular shaped object, covered in a white cloth. Tony felt it, and tapped it. He pulled the cloth off, and sat down.
The piano hadn’t been moved in nearly thirty years. Tony opened the lid and looked at it. Glistening ivory keys looked up at him. The untarnished name of the maker was still visible on the lid – ‘Steinway & Sons’.
Tony sighed. He needed to relax after all that running and punching and shooting. He started to play.
The music was beautiful, but the instrument making it…well that was another story. The piano sounded out-of-tune, with crisp, metallic-sounding notes, which warbled and echoed and wavered in and out of tune. Bouncing hammers made strings vibrate for longer, or shorter than they were supposed to, but to Tony, it sounded wonderful.
“I didn’t know you could play the piano,” said Michael.
“That’s because you never visit my house,” Tony said. He stopped, closed the lid and then got up. “My mother sold our piano last week, though. Old grand piano, no room in the house for it.”
“Yeah…” said Michael. “Tony, are you alright? You’ve been acting really weirdly since we came in here.”
“This place used to be a hospital,” he said. “My dad used to work here when I was a kid…and he…did away with himself here…”
“Oh,” said Michael, now wishing he hadn’t asked.
“No, it’s alright…” Tony said. “He hung himself. We don’t know why. I think it was because his marriage to my mother fell apart. They had a great marriage, loved each other a lot…but when the flu came, their relationship went. And things just spiralled downhill…My mother still thinks that my dad killed himself because she wasn’t being understanding of him. She still thinks that perhaps if she’d seen it from her husband’s point of view and backed off, then he might still be alive.”
Michael nodded. “sounds…weird.”
“Yeah…” said Tony. The two men found themselves walking around the hospital. They reached the end of the corridor and they headed upstairs. Tony walked to the end of a corridor and opened a door.
Tony cried. The corpse hung from the pipe running through the ceiling of the office. The policemen hurried Tony and his mother away. The officers went inside and closed the door. They had to cut the body down.
Tony leaned against the doorframe.
“They didn’t find anything. They didn’t find a note, he didn’t tell anyone. My mother still thinks that she drove him to suicide. I think it was because I was so young. She wanted him around for my sake…but he just couldn’t do it, and all the stress drove him nuts.”
Michael sighed. “Come on…”
Tony stepped into the office. The furniture was still there.
“They locked this place up after the flu pandemic was over. They left everything where it was. A doctor killing himself in his own office at the hospital isn’t really good publicity.” Tony said. He chuckled. “His desk is still here.”
Tony opened the drawers and continued talking.
“They cleared out all the people…all the stuff they needed, all the papers…and just left the furniture.”
“Why hasn’t this place been pulled down?” Michael asked.
“It’s protected.” Tony said, “It’s a historical building. So they just left all the furniture here.”
Tony reached into the drawers of the desk, as if he was supposed to find some sort of treasure.
“Tony?” Michael asked. Tony held a piece of yellowed notepaper in his hand. Slowly, he unfolded it. Written in a shaky hand, with an old nib-pen, was a note.
“Saturday, 15th of October, 1918.
I leave this where someone might chance to find it someday, and read it.
The toll is too much. I am both mentally and physically exhausted, after just a few months. Bodies stack up like firewood and there are not enough crematoriums to burn them all. For weeks I have tried to heal the sick, bury the dead and distance the healthy from those that are sick. This disease is incurable and I have myself succumbed to it. Coughing up pus and blood and having extreme difficulty breathing, I have decided to end my life now, quickly and in relatively less pain, than those whom I tried to save.
Dr. Albert Harrison. MD. Bach. Med. Bach. Surg.
I have, and always will love my darling wife, Mary, who wished to have me away from this place of death. Remember me always, and hope that our son will not follow in my footsteps, down the path that he has wanted to walk ever since he could get on two feet and not fall over again. Take care and remember that your father loved you. Goodbye Anthony.”
“What’s the matter?” Michael asked.
“Nothing…let’s get out of here.”
Tony folded the message into his wallet and the two friends left. Tony was given the opportunity to patrol another beat after that, but decided not to change. He didn’t have to be afraid of the building where his dad had killed himself. He didn’t have to worry about him or his mother thinking that through their own actions, or in Tony’s case, through his very existence, they had caused Dr. Albert Harrison to kick the chair and take his own life.
“So that’s it?” Mary asked.
Tony nodded, “that was it, ma,” he said. Mary sighed. “Thank God for that…” she said. The old woman got up and opened a cabinet. She pulled out an empty picture-frame, framed the note, and then put it on the mantelpiece, to stand as a constant reminder that she needn’t feel guilty anymore.