Smelling Salts


Greg Stermolle

He kicked through the red and yellow detritus of fallen autumn leaves, wearily approaching the ominous glass doors. The stench hit him heavily as he entered; bleach masking stale urine, masking old body odor, masking the sickness and death and decay he felt swirling around him like a storm. The waiting room was already full; leftovers from a hectic early afternoon. He only glanced at the tall, pasty-skinned woman for a moment, but the scent told him she was only moments from a Grand mal seizure. He smiled gently in her direction and walked to the short, blonde nurse standing behind the counter. A large pink bubble expanded from her lips like a balloon, then withered into a huge gleaming smile as he approached. She smelled like apple cinnamon soap and baby powder deodorant. He grabbed her by the arm, a bit too hard as her smooth face turned to a pained grimace. "Nurse," he said low, carefully avoiding a scene, "the tall woman is about to have a seizure. Get her out of the waiting room and find her a bed."

The nurse stood, awestruck for a moment. "Yes, yes Dr. Downhour," she stammered, then hastily padded off in search of an unoccupied gurney, her silky ponytail bouncing lazily behind her. A leisurely stroll carried him back to the crowed waiting area. Again he smiled warmly at the patients and family.

The pasty woman sat at the end of a row, her seat next to the hallway. "Pardon me miss," he asked, in the smooth, baritone voice of a confident physician, "I am Dr. Leyton Downhour." He squatted next to her chair and gently laid his hand on her arm, her fuzzy blouse tickled his soft, manicured hand. "Would you mind coming with me for a moment?" Most women -lost in his severe face, bony features, taut bronze skin, and elegant dimples- would later compare it to looking at the last beautiful thing they would ever truly see. The ruggedly good looking, athletic young doctor was often, too much for their prosaic spirits, the yet unconsumed balance of their life percolating through the paper filter most commonly referred to as daytime drama. The woman got up and followed him like a horse following a bushel of crisp orange carrots.

The nurse returned, still towing her rubbery ponytail, said, "All the rooms are full Dr. Downhour. But I pulled out a gurney and set it next to the storage closet around the corner."

"Very well." he replied, rather curtly, as if she had not sensed the crisis in his grip or the tone of his voice.

"Well," the pasty woman started, elegantly fanning away the blush emerging on her face like the plume of a volcano, "all of a sudden, walking with you, I don't feel so bad for missing my soaps today." The trio continued down the whitewash hallway, their shoes pulling against the blue tile floor, still sticky from the janitors mop which hadn't been cleaned since Jimmy Carter was in office. Every few doors, some indiscriminate splash of impressionist color encased in a faux wood frame, went horribly unnoticed as an attempt to give contrast to the drab hallway seemingly never ended. Leyton hated it. This is an Emergency Room he had told the art-deco design committee. He petitioned many times to have the mindless art changed to something more fitting to an environment of healing. He wanted, felt it imperative actually, to see pictures of real people, saving lives, helping others, succeeding; astronauts, firemen, soldiers, art with meaning, giving people hope, a spark causing hearts to pump and compelling the mind to raise its owners to their feet and send them wading back into the throng of life. A firm believer in the healing power of the mind, Dr. Downhour cited study after study pleading for visual stimuli in order to again give the patients dreams, desires, goals and confidence; anything other than the picayune clutter now dotting the walls like framed refuse. "May as well have used invisible ink," came from his throat, more like a growl than words, causing both women to pull away slightly as they walked.

Soothing never healed anyone dammit, but good ideas die long, drawn out, inconsequential deaths at the hands of tyrants. Leyton was by no means popular with the hospital management. The clientele of the hospital had entered a sharp downward spiral since Downhour became a resident. This new breed of seedy characters with their ghastly wounds came in two groups: the wild untamed street trash, and the insolent arrogants in their swank costumes and lavish odor seemed to waft in and out of the ER as easily and as often as the off-shore fog. And as the ER continued to swell with proletarians and aristocrats, so did the doctor's delusions grow proportionately. It started innocent enough. Without realizing it, Leyton rearranged the directors office one day while having a discussion about a new filing system for prescription medicine. The director had been riveted to his computer screen reviewing the new system, when he looked up and saw Leyton carrying three books from a counter and placing them on a small black cabinet, then remove the lamp and take it back to the counter. "Umm, pardon me Martha," he said pulling his wire rim glasses down to the tip of his nose, "moving right in, are we?" Leyton had seemed almost surprised at the items in his arms. He blushed and placed the things back in their original positions.

"Sorry sir," he said, moving the chair to the right and back six inches before sitting down, "the decorating here is just . . ." but he could not finish and the meeting was adjourned.

As the threesome continued around the corner, Leyton helped the pasty, star-struck woman onto the gurney. "Do you have a history of epilepsy ma'am?" He asked, checking her pulse at the wrist and watching her chest rise and fall, detecting the minute changes and tasting the stench of the imbalance in her body finding its way through his nose and down to the sour and salty receptors of his tongue. He heard a no, but then her words jumbled into incoherent sounds as he watched the movements of her green blouse with blue stitched flowers, slowly quicken along with the pulse changing beneath his concentrated finger tips. The pulse hit a crescendo as did the odor he could feel soaking into his pores. The woman's eyes rolled back in her head and she fell slack against the spongy vinyl bed. Her contracting muscles violently jerked her body like a snake caught in an eagle's talons.

The nurse jumped back, her gum sliding down her throat somewhere between her mouth and stomach. Panic took over as she pictured the doctor causing this reaction in the woman by looking at her, touching her, walking her down the hallway. She looked at Dr. Downhour, terrified and unsure if she should help, or run away crying for help!

"Hold her down nurse," he said, " but gently. Only enough so that she doesn't hurt herself." He jumped to the head of the gurney and placed his arms against her shoulders holding her elbows in his hands. He bent down so that his forehead was against hers and began chanting a guttural series of queer noises. The nurse finally reacted but was unable to take her eyes off the handsome doctor. She gently protected the woman's legs from striking the wall or falling off the gurney, but as her fingers brushed against the woman's cool skin, it sent a tingling through her hand and up into her chest.

The convulsions only lasted a few moments. And when they stopped, the woman opened her eyes and smiled as if she just awoke from a fairy tale dream starring Leyton as Prince Charming. "You'll be ok now ma'am." He said, with a smile so genuine it nearly compelled her to shed a tear. "Lay here for a few moments, this nurse here will find you a room and we'll get you taken care of." She smiled, closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.

Then Dr. Downhour turned to the nurse. "Now, what is your name nurse . . .?"

"Nightengail doctor." She squeaked, still in a bit of shock. "Sandy Nightengail. Sounds the same just not . . ."

"Not spelled the same. Yes, and of course, why shouldn't it be?" He said, cracking a sly grin for his own amusement. "Ok then. Please find this woman a room and get a chart started on her. I'm going to change and then get started on the rounds." He whirled around and headed for the lounge.

She watched him for a moment, still not sure what to make of the incident that had just occurred. Then she spun on her heels, and like a homing missile, took of in the direction of the head nurse, an older black woman named Marva who had probably been around since the last time the mops had been cleaned. Sandy found her walking out of the storage room containing refrigerated liquids, plasma, saline solution, and narcotics. "Marva," she said as she grabbed the older woman by the arm, and dragged her back into the store room.

"Get a hold of yourself child!" She scolded before looking into the young nurse's eyes, seeing the melding of panic, fear, excitement, and confusion. "Sandy, are you OK?" She asked, her tone more comforting.

"Yes. But Dr. Downhour . . ." and she preceded to recall the incident in the hallway. When she finished, she was nearly in tears and Marva was smiling. "But I don't understand. He can't have known she was going to have a seizure, it's not possible. He must have given it too her or drugged her . . ."

"Ooh child! No, no Sandy. He did no such thing. There is something different about that man, that's for sure. Be he does that stuff all the time, says they smell different. I know, I know. It sounds ridiculous, but he has not been wrong yet. He's found melanomas, diabetics, seizures, and even real cancer several times. He has a gift. Like those experimental dogs people have been training. A miracle if you ask me."

Sandy was still skeptical, but miracles were part of the reason she wanted to be a nurse; however doubtful her heart remained. " I don't know. It was just really weird. That, plus all these unexplained deaths lately. People passing in the recovery room after successful surgeries, dying in comas, it happens more than it should around here. Oh, and then he started chanting something bizarre as he touched her head."

"This is a hospital and people die. And yes, I've heard his chanting myself a few times. But I've watched patients react to him. Its like they are reunited with their favorite pet or best friend when he comes into the room, almost magic. Happiness is going to follow that man till the day he dies." Marva blushed a little and grew a warm smile. "You know, my momma used to tell me angels would sometimes come down from heaven to spread joy and to be around us."

"Well, I don't know about that," Sandy said squeezing her eyebrows together. "Either way, its bizarre."

"Yes, I suppose you're right, sweetie." Marva said putting her fleshy arm around Sandy's shoulder. "Oh, I almost forgot," she said referring back to her clipboard. "We have been coming up several bags short of plasma and saline solution for the past few months. Do you know anything about it?"

"No," Sandy said as she turned and headed for the door. "Perhaps your miracle working doctor is doing a little moonlighting."

Sandy left the large storage room and Marva followed her out. Marva watched as she sauntered back to the front desk, her pony tail again swishing cheerfully across her back. Marva sighed forcefully. "We can't keep doing this honeychild," she said, under her breath, and then headed for the doctor's lounge.

Dr. Downhour had just finished pulling up his green OR scrubs when the head nurse eased herself silently through the door and moved along the wall, quietly as a shadow. "I could smell you down the hall Marva," he said, fiddling with the drawstring. "Nurse Nightengail came to you with questions, I take it?"

Her shoulders slumped and her chin hit her chest, "Leyton, we can't keep this up much longer. The girls are getting restless. The director seems to have some personal vendetta against you, and if we are found out, the way things are now, I don't think even you will be safe."

He finished tying the knot then sat on the bench in front of his locker, elbows resting on his knees and head resting in his hands. "Yes, and that says nothing for you. I know. It feels strange. Something is changing, something in the air, I don't know, drifting on the breeze perhaps. I came here and started this to help these people. But now, a voice is calling me, aching, pulling at my heart. It's coming. Not that I regret our decision, but maybe, I just don't know. I mean, are we really helping, or just bringing pain upon ourselves? How long can we control this?"

She walked over and sat next to him. She took his hand and held it tightly, like a mother comforting her son. They sat, four troubled hearts bound in kinship, but drawing strength in the tenderness and devotion only the immortal connection of family, can provide. He felt his heart swell, "There is no substitute for the love of blood in troubled times and hostile lands."

"I know," she started, but before she could finish, his ears perked up and she felt every muscle in his body tense.

Though her ears were old, she could hear the commotion at the front desk. Her nose was old as well, and she could no longer sense the blood and odors like Dr. Downhour. In fact, even in their world he had been blessed with a special gift. He moved so nimbly, she almost missed his leaving the room. Out the door and down the hallway he loped in the direction of the front desk; the acrid, salty scent of blood and hate, thick and suffocating causing him to pant as he ran. Rounding the last corner he dodged a gurney headed for surgery. The boy was young, twelve at most, with scraggly brown hair and sallow skin from a severe loss of blood. Leyton lost all care for the commotion at the front desk as the world slowed and he watched the boy wheel-by in slow motion.

"He has been bitten, Leyton," came Marva's low guttural growl. She too watched the boy passing in slow motion, but her words were clear.

The boy's eyes opened and he looked directly at Leyton. To a bystander it would have happened in the blink of an eye, but for the three, it was enough for an eternity of conversation. "Yes, I see," said Leyton, watching the boy's eyes, searching for a glimmer of hope. Hope he did not see. "But I can save him." The boy's eyes closed as a gratified smile appeared beneath the green oxygen mask. Time caught up and the gurney wheeled through the double doors into Operating Room II.

"No, you can't Downhour." Marva said, stepping between Leyton and the double doors. His eyes met hers; she saw the anguish and agony he carried from watching these young men and women come in day after day; healing, leaving, changing, effectively abandoning any hope of a normal life. She knew, death itself could not stop him from helping that boy, even though there was nothing he could do. His eyes fell to the floor. "Don't fret honeychild." She said, picking up his chin. "You have a good heart, and a good heart will never be alone in this world."

A small wave of nurses in blue OR scrubs washed around the corner and Dr. Downhour was swept into OR II. The boy's physical wounds were easy enough to repair. Several large gashes, a four inch flap of skin and muscle had been peeled back from the bone, and a broken arm. Three hours and three bags of plasma later, the boy was heavily medicated and resting peacefully in the recovery room. Leyton stopped by several times during the night to check on his condition. He took his break at 1:30 am, went to the children's ward and grabbed a book to read to the little boy. The head nurse was reading to an older child tucked into the rear of the cancer ward. Abandoned at birth, the hospital had basically raised the boy. He had spent several weeks in a foster home but was brought back because of acute medical conditions. Marva is such a good mother to the young ones, just as she was with me, Leyton thought, leaning against the door frame. The drawing of the little blue steam engine flitting happily down the tracks surrounded by the bright red leather cover of the book, stuck out festively beneath his arm.

"Dr. Downhour," she said, flashing her benevolent smile as if hearing his compliments, "would you mind getting Robby here, a glass of milk from the fridge?"

"Of course," he said, and headed to the nurses station.

Nurse Nightengail was covering the Children's desk when he approached and walked to the fridge. "The doctor's lounge out of refreshments?" She asked, glaring at him as if he were stealing money from the children's piggy banks. She was curt, but it was 1:30 in the morning.

"Umm, no. Robby wanted a glass of milk," he said, flashing his own feigned smile.

"Really, how sweet. What exactly are you doing up here, anyway?" She asked, arms crossed over her chest, foot angrily tapping the ground.

He reached in poured the milk, and as he walked out, said, "I was grabbing a book for the boy in recovery." He held it up and shook the cover at her, "Now, if you'll excuse me."

Robby was very appreciative of the milk, but Leyton was anxious to get back and read, "The Little Engine That Could," to the boy in the Recovery I. He dashed down the halls and settled himself into a terribly uncomfortable chair, thin purple foam pads on the seat and back, but nothing on the arms. He had enough time to finish the book and sneak in a short nap before his break was over. Walking out of the room, he brushed past Marva.

"Don't get too attached," she said, tenderly touching his arm. "It will only lead to heartache for both of you."

He stopped for a moment, looking down and the happy little engine on the cover, "No, it won't. He'll recover fast, they all do. Then I think we should take him to the pack."

"Leyton, you can't be serious!" She gasped, her jaw set, eyes closing to dark slits. "They will never accept him. EVER! They'll eat him, and you'll be lucky if they don't eat you for suggesting it!"

He chuckled. "Maybe. Well, you know his parents were killed tonight as well. I had to give a statement on his injuries. The officers at the scene still have no idea how he escaped. He'll need somewhere to go."

"Honey," she said, as the tenderness evaporated from her voice, "You need some rest." She cupped his chin in her hand as she spoke. She had been holding his face like that since he was a young boy, only a little younger than the boy in the recovery room. But this time something was different. There was no warmth. The scent was not quite the same. She was hiding something.

His footsteps feel heavily as he walked from the recovery room, searching his thoughts and memories for that smell . . . that feeling. But he could not place it. He walked down the hallway toward the front desk, his shoes still sticking and then pulling away from the blue tile floor. The drab and motionless paintings on the wall only furthered his melancholy spirit. "How can this make anyone strive to go on living?" He said, to a particularly dreary scene depicting large orange and white Koi swimming beneath big green lily pads. "I mean, even the children's ward is painted in landscape scenes with people and animals and fish; jumping, playing, running, jumping rope, hopscotch, finger painting. The stuff that kids want to do, gives them a reason to get out of the hospital. What adult wants to swim around under a lily pad? Of course, here I am wasting my time talking to some, painted fish."

He left the fish and continued around the corner to the main desk. As usual, it was teeming with activity. "Jesus Downhour!" said the head resident doctor. "Where have you been? Robby in the cancer ward just went into cardiac arrest. Go up," But before he could finish Leyton was gone.

Leyton reached the ward as Nurse Nightengail pulled up the crash cart. Another nurse was already performing CPR. He got out the paddles and began barking orders for medications and volts in a blur of practiced execution. But after ten minutes, hands shaking and a tear rolling down his eye, Dr. Downhour pronounced the boy dead.

Sandy gently buttoned up boy's blue pajamas and laid his arms over his chest. "I know what you did." She said through clenched teeth, her pony tail no longer bouncing and playful. Her fists were balled so tightly her knuckles were turning white.

"I'm sorry?" Leyton asked.

"I know what you did, you bastard. I went back and looked through the charts. The kids and adults who have died of strange or unexplained illnesses. It always happens on your shift." Her hands were now shaking, her face the same shade of red as the book about the little engine.

"What are you talking about?" Was all he could think to say, blind sided and accused of killing masses of terminally ill patients.

Tears were flowing freely now, and some spittle had begun to form at the corner of her mouth. You will not get away with it. You are done. Do you understand! Detecting seizures my ass! You probably caused it! I saw you walk in here earlier tonight. You were the only person here!"

His mind raced to recall the evening. "No," he said. "I wasn't the only . . . Oh no. You didn't see her. She slipped past you."

"No you bastard, there was no one else. JUST YOU!" and she threw herself at him, but much to slow. Leyton easily dodged her ferocity, sending her head first into an IV stand. He tried to reach down and help her up, but she sliced his arm with a fingernail. He barked out a deafening growl and stormed from of the room. He could hear her thrashing and sobbing from down the hall.

His first stop was the recovery room. He ran to the young boy's bed and instinctively felt for a pulse. Shallow and thready. He looked up at the monitor and watched as the boy's vitals very slowly declined. That smell. He had unwittingly smelled it on Robby and now he smelled it on this boy. He had smelled it before, he had watched this play unfold, the boy in the bed next to his when Marva had found him. He watched as that boy, just like these, withered away and died. His bottom lip started to quiver and the tears wet the boy's cheeks. He saw so much of himself in the little boy, he couldn't bear to let go. Leyton reached his arms around the boy's narrow shoulders and head pulling himself closer the bony little chest. The two rocked back and forth in the bed as Leyton's eyes poured out unleashed emotions.

But as the monitor began to chirp a warning, he was forced to leave. The doctor grabbed the red book sitting in the crook of the boy's arm and ran for the back dock of the hospital. He knew she was there, smoking a cigarette, savoring the obscurity of nightfall. As he ran down the hall, he pictured tearing her limb from limb, crushing her skull with his paws. The doors couldn't come soon enough.

He burst through the door like a rock bursting through the hull of a ship as it ran agound. "You did it. You killed those people, those boys and those girls. WHY?" He boomed.

She was waiting against the wall and blew out a gray cone of smoke. "Nice night. Cloudy and a little chilly, but peaceful."

"WHY MARVA?" His hands arching out like claws.

She took another long drag from the cigarette and this time blew the smoke up into the air. "We have an entire pack to feed. I killed for food. If they went around and hunted, we would be signing our own death warrant. Something is happening to the creatures of the night, and I know you feel it. I was trying to keep our feedings as discrete as possible. Bums, degenerates, homeless, terminally ill with no family, vampires like you little friend in the recovery room. I killed food Leyton. To keep our family alive, to feed our own. I don't understand your obsession with these humans. We are Lycans!"

"But why!" he screamed. "I was once human also. And that boy was special, different, just like me."

"No Leyton. He wasn't. You saw that. When he changed, he would have woken up hungry. And who do you think he would have tried to make a snack of? I should have allowed it, maybe that would have roused you from this despondency."

"But sometimes I feel so alone. We have each other, yes. But it feels so good to help them, serve them and heal them. Part of me wants to love them."

"I know you didn't choose this life, and for you it must be hard. But this is the life we have. If they find you out, they will kill you. Hang you, gut you, burn you at the stake. They can't understand us. We eat them to survive, yet they hold the power. The power of numbers and the power of order, but I think even that is about to change. For now, we are forced into shadows, scrounging in small groups just to survive. You and I work to survive, although I think you serve as a way of paying a debt you have never owed. Our secrecy is the only refuge we have."

She pushed herself off the wall and strode toward him. But as she did the clouds parted and a bright moon drew their silhouettes against the pale stucco. The shadows changed shape to awful deformities growing hair, fangs, and claws. Then settled into two sleek shapes, the perfect combination of animal and man. The shadows against the wall huddled together and let out a long joyless howl, the call of the pack.