The snow crumbled beneath my feet. Grasping the candle in my pocket, I crossed the street in haste leaving behind my footsteps embossed in white powder before anything would make me change my mind. Led by instinct—and a whiff of intuition—I took an abrupt turn to the right, sidestepping the main entrance that, by now, would be locked anyway.
The rear side of the building looked desolate, a veneer of cement covering the ground cracking in many places. The space was littered with scattered pieces of black rocks surrounding piles of coal—moonlight making it sparkle like some subterranean treasure. I squeezed the waxy cane that was beginning to soften in my hands and aimed toward the piles, discovering a downward sloping set of stairs leading to the building’s basement. I approached the stairs and hearing a door squeak, squatted behind a short ledge that ran alongside the stairs. My heartbeat tripled in cadence and my nose caught the dry, sulfuric scent of smoke that invaded the night air.
After moments of silence and lack of movement, I peeked over the ledge. The door that led underground had been left ajar. Next to it stood a wheelbarrow, loaded with coal. I waited with bated breath, listening for the person feeding the incinerators, but no steps came so I plunged ahead slithering through the door into a narrow tunnel. My throat constricted from the smoke. I could not go straight, only left or right. Which direction to go? I took a few steps to my left and immediately felt the air thicken and the temperature rise. The furnaces must be close. I braved my fears and not registering any suspicious noises, made a sharp turn in the hallway, stopping suddenly, pinned flat against the wall. Battling my fear, heart racing, the orange glow dancing on the walls,
I was starting to melt in my sheepskin coat, but I had an idea and decided to follow through with it.
I shuffled my feet sideways, hands grinding over the rough surface of the basement wall, feeling the heat climb to hellish proportions. Once I could go no further, I turned my head and peeked around the corner. The furnaces were massive, flames converting matter with the roaring sound of a hurricane. Stacked atop a small shelf was a pile of matchboxes. Shielding my face from the heat, I reached around and grabbed one box before a moving shadow appeared on a wall. I broke out into a blind run in the other direction. With each step, the air got cooler and the space grew darker. I reached out my hands until they touched a wall. Feeling my way through, I turned left again and continued my dash, stumbling over a set of stairs. Panting, I raised my head and looked up.
Up above, dim light outlined the edges of a doorway. Thinking that it must be the hospital floor, I picked myself up and ascended the dozen steps. My fingertips ran along the door’s coarse surface, drops of hardened paint frozen in time. Suddenly, I heard a noise, and I was sure it wasn’t coming from the other side. I froze in place, hearing footsteps below. Holding my breath, I put pressure on the handle, but it stalled. I ran my fingers alongside the frame, looking for bolts and locks, as the footsteps behind me neared. Desperately searching, I couldn’t find anything that would indicate why the door wouldn’t open. My shaky hands returned to the doorknob, my fingers examining its shape in detail. In the meantime, whoever was behind me was now at least halfway up the stairs. A draft of cold air reached the exposed skin of my hands. I could smell my own trepidation, like the fear of a hunted animal. My sweaty hands were slipping over the metal when I located a tiny lock and twisted it. Squeezing my lips together, a knot in my stomach, sweat on my temples, I pressed down the handle once more and pushed open the door just as someone’s fingers brushed against my hair. The door yielded with a faint pop.
I stepped into the bright hallway and turned, my eyes skimming the face of the one pursuing me. Looking at me with an inkling of a smile, was the same man who had held out the candle for me in the cathedral.
Fluorescent lights buzzed above my head, reflecting off the gray linoleum floor as I scuttled on my tiptoes down the silent corridor. Still shivering from angst, and simmering in my coat, I turned to look behind me, but no one was there. I slowed my pace. Who was this strange person? And what was he doing following me?
Approaching the nearest staircase I looked around, lost. I had no idea where I was in relation to the patient rooms. I must have reached the main floor with the administrative rooms, which at this hour were free of important people in starched white uniforms. Like a ghost, I drifted through the dimly lit corridor, an apparition traversing a sterile duct of an abandoned spacecraft. Part of me could not believe that I had made it this far, ignoring the perils of danger, instead thrusting my head into the tiger’s mouth, hoping it would overcome its hard-wired urges to bite. I was scared, but also thrilled.
As soon as I began to climb the stairs, two at a time, I heard female voices approaching. Stopping in my tracks, I pressed my back to the wall. Completely exposed and with no place to hide, anxiety rolled over me, further rousing my boiling blood and searing branches of nerves. If I was caught, the consequences could range from disciplinary escort to something more severe. Just this summer the police had gotten involved in a case with a classmate who had broken into our school at night. The episode was humiliating, not only to him, but also to his entire family who resided in our town.
This was the closest scenario I could think of, and since my case involved a hospital, not a school, the consequences could be worse.
The conversation above me took on a casual tone and was not growing any louder. I was safe, but probably not for long. I sped up the stairs, rounded the corner, and plunged into the closest bathroom. Grabbing onto the sink and breathing hard, I looked down at the floor, spotted with inky splatter marks, which in this dim light could have been blood. I shivered. I turned to look past the open doorframe and listened in. The voices belonged to two nurses in a room dangerously close to me. This floor was much darker than the one below me, sparse light diffusing from the nurse room and the bathroom that glowed reddish in hue. I decided to take a risk and climb up one more floor, hoping to find the boy’s room there. I exited the bathroom, and sped up the stairs trying to do so as quietly as possible.
Stalling at the top, I eavesdropped again, working hard to calm my breathing. My ears registered the distant sound of a beeping apparatus, located behind one of the closed doors. The corridor on the top floor was even darker, and I glided through it with soft knees, carefully placing each foot in front of the other. I reached the right floor. Passing by my grandfather’s room, I imagined him submerged in a drug-induced sleep. As I looked for the boy’s room, trying to discern between three middle doors, my vision grew cloudy. I squinted and noticed slight movement around one set of doors, as if its frame was trembling. Then, the doors began to open. I held my breath, not sure whether I was just imagining it, but then he stepped out into the hallway.
“You didn’t lose faith,” he said, and reached out his hand.
“I came close to doubting everything,” I replied walking towards him and feeling my hand soften under his touch.
He led us into his room, closed the doors, and took my jacket to hang it on an old wooden hanger standing by the door. I felt like I had just shed a layer of skin. The lights in his room were off, but his white pajamas seemed to glow in the dark.
“Give me your hand,” he asked, coming closer. The warmth of his body poured to me like a ray of sunshine. “And the other.” The smell of his skin reminded me of the scent of a newborn. “Now, close your eyes.”
Immediately, everything started to spin, as if I was riding on a carousel, my mind erupting with a volcano of thoughts. It kept picking up momentum, becoming a raging tempest. The images blurred and sounds roared like helicopter engines. I saw my mother crying, my father screaming, Rena laughing at me. There was Ben trying to kiss me, followed by the distinct sensation of the needle going through Paula’s ear. Fear, anger and desire . . . I felt them all at once. I saw the silhouette of the hung cat and the moon beyond, which got brighter and bigger until it filled my entire vision with silver light. The light faded into darkness, out of which emerged the face of the angel looking at me with his burning eyes. Those eyes then became blue, and I saw Punk biting into the sandwich before he lost all his hair and became the one now holding my hands.
“So much on your mind,” he said. “No need to be afraid. These are only thoughts, noise you can learn to let go.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Daniel. I can help you understand your dreams.”