The small, white-tiled waiting room held only two people: Dr. Judith McDowell and Dr. Winston’s assistant. There were only two doors in the room, one to Dr. Winston’s office and one back down to the main wing of the hospital. Light shined through the window on the wall opposite Judith; the clock ticked impatiently second after second, filling the empty silence of the room with its persistent noise. Judith sat in a wooden armchair by the window, ink bleeding onto the pages of her journal as she wrote. Judith felt Dr. Winston’s assistant peering over her shoulder to see what she was writing as she finished her last sentence, which read, “I let another one go.”
Judith clicked the top of her pen, shut her journal, and gave out a disgusted sigh. Without seeing the assistant she asked, “What do you want?”
“Dr. Winston will see you now.”
Judith put her journal in her bag and crossed the waiting room to Dr. Winston’s office. The assistant waited for Judith to enter Dr. Winston’s office before making his way down the corridor to the main wing of the hospital for his break.
Dr. Winston’s office felt small and cold; the black walls held no pictures. Piles of half-finished patient reports, books, and stray cough drop wrappers lay strewn across his desk. Dr. Winston’s eyes were buried in Vernon Goldberg’s report when Judith entered the room. He motioned for her to sit in a small oak armchair with red upholstery and then turned his gaze back to Goldberg’s report. “I’ll be with you in a moment, Judith.”
Judith sat down and waited in silence until Dr. Winston had finished reading the report. He closed the manila file and tossed it on his desk with a sigh. “Why does this report say his cause of death is unknown? Judith, he died because someone pulled the plug on his ventilator.”
“I filed it as such because we do not know how or why the ventilator was unplugged. Should I have filed that his life support was terminated even though we have no clue as to how or why?”
Dr. Winston studied Judith, who remained confident in the midst of an office designed to intimidate. Leaning back in his chair, he scratched his temple and sat up straight. “This looks bad, Judith. He didn’t have any advanced directives signed. We’re talking major malpractice lawsuits. No one is going to believe that the cause of death was unknown, but nothing else is plausible.” Dr. Winston paused and folded his hands in his lap. “You were his attending physician, Judith. You terminated his life support.”
Dr. Winston interrupted, “Stop. We’re going to file the report as physician-determined termination of life support. It is likely that his son will file a malpractice suit against you. I’m sorry, but it must be done.”
“I understand your bullshit hospital politics, but at least let me have a chance to speak.”
Dr. Winston settled back in his chair, squirming back and forth to find a comfortable angle. He eyed the clock, which read 11:02AM, and looked back at Judith, “I have a meeting at 11:30. You have twenty minutes. Be thorough.”
Dr. Judith McDowell has a reputation for being relentless, intense, and unforgiving in the ICU, especially during the night shift. Rumors circulated a year ago that she ran an intern out of the hospital for placing a catheter five minutes later than she needed it. Another version of the story said it was because the intern was too slow to find a vein in a patient’s arm to draw blood. More versions of the rumor circulated, but they all shared one theme: Judith didn’t tolerate anything short of perfection.
The night nurse extended a manila file to Dr. Judith McDowell, “Vernon Goldberg’s file.” Judith snatched the file out of her hand and rifled through it. She muttered to herself, “Paraplegic on a ventilator.” She shut the file and made her way to the Intensive Care Unit. Once she arrived, she noticed that Vernon’s breathing and feeding tubes had already been placed. As a rule, Judith never trusted anyone else’s work when it came to intubation. She examined both the feeding tube and the ventilator, approving of the job done by whoever placed them. Judith then turned to the ventilator to examine Vernon’s oxygen levels. They were stable, but she knew that his condition could take a turn for the worse at any moment. Judith turned to leave, but stopped as something caught her eye along the wall behind the ventilator. It took Judith a moment to realize that the battery charger for the ventilator was unplugged from the outlet. Judith plugged it into the outlet and stormed out of the room.
Judith approached the night nurses’ station in a fury. The night nurse’s name was Rose Franklin. Young and skinny, it was Rose’s first night as the nurse-on-duty during the hospital’s graveyard shift. Judith slammed Vernon’s file on the desk, “Who performed the intubation on Vernon Goldberg?”
“I’ll check. One moment please.” Rose began shuffling through the time log from earlier that day. Judith grew impatient with Rose, sighing deeply every time Rose hesitated.
“You take so long to do your damn job. It’s a wonder anything ever gets done in here.”
Rose stuttered, “L-Lucia Valesquez.” Lucia was a highly recommended physician – “a hell of a doctor” according to the chief of medicine – and graduated first in her class in the University of New Mexico’s medical program. But with Judith McDowell working in the ICU, this was the wrong night for a mistake. Judith knew Lucia was in the physician sleeping quarters; Lucia liked to sleep there in between long shifts.
Physicians often noted how the sleeping quarters felt cramped and smelled arid. Moonlight spilled through the picture window on the east side of the room, illuminating the four sets of bunk beds pushed along the walls. Judith burst into the room and found Lucia in the bottom bunk of the bed closest to the door. The heavy metal door slammed into her bedframe, startling Lucia who sat up quickly and asked, “What is it?”
Judith asked, “Did you perform the intubation procedure on Vernon Goldberg?” Lucia nodded. Judith continued, “Were you the only one?”
“Well, Katie was the nurse assisting me.” Katherine Candace was the head nurse in the ICU earlier that day.
“Did you feel satisfied with your procedure?”
Lucia’s expression shifted to one of confusion, “Yes, I thought so.”
Judith lived up to her reputation, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but part of the procedure includes making sure the batteries are charged for the ventilator. Am I wrong about that?” Lucia shook her head. “Then why was the battery charger unplugged?”
Lucia hung her head for a moment. “We must have missed it.”
“You must have.”
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes. Everything’s fine now.” Judith paused. “We can’t afford that type of intern bullshit around here, Lucia. You know better than that. Don’t get lazy with your job.”
“I’m sorry too. You’re the last ass I’d expect to have to wipe.”
Lucia went on the defensive, “It was an honest mistake.”
Judith turned to leave and said, “Honest mistakes get people killed in hospitals, Lucia.”
“Just like Manhattan?”
This comment caught Judith off guard. She turned to Lucia, “What?
“I know about your little ‘incident’ in Manhattan, Judith. I know you make mistakes, too,” she said. Judith folded her arms and Lucia pressed, “Or maybe you thought I was the only one to ever botch an intubation. Is that what you thought?
Judith paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. Then she unfolded her arms and said, “I can’t choose to go back and unfuck a situation I’ve already fucked up. But I can choose not to do it again. That’s what I’m choosing.” Judith turned again to leave, “And you should too. Don’t make that mistake again, Lucia.” Judith slammed the door shut behind her as she left.
The hospital’s graveyard shift custodian had a habit of swearing at broken equipment, “Damn this light. It’s always flickering.” He climbed down from the stepladder he had placed beside the nurses’ station, bulb in hand. He handed the bulb to Rose and asked, “Is it alright if I leave this bulb out for a little while? I’m going to need to take a look at the wiring up in the ceiling.”
Rose took the bulb and threw it in the trashcan, “That’s fine. As long as it’s fixed by the time the morning shift rolls in then it should be fine.”
The janitor left as Rose turned back to organizing the stack of files piled high on the nurses’ station desk. Judith came to the desk a few moments later and gave Rose the file on Vernon Goldberg. She said, “Rose, everything’s stable right now. I’ll check back with him in a few hours. Just keep in mind that his condition can worsen at any time, so I want you to check on him every hour. Got that?” Rose nodded and kept the file separate from the others. Judith grabbed a stack of files and continued, “I’m going to the break room to read over a few of the new admissions. I’ll be back in an hour or so. Page me if there’s an emergency, but leave me alone otherwise.”
“I will, Dr. McDowell.”
Rose listened intently to Judith’s sneakers tap the tiled floor on her way down to the physician’s break room. She heard the heavy stainless steel door crash into its frame, confirming that Judith was safely out of earshot. Faustina Hospital was quieter than death at night and Rose hated it. She crouched down and pulled out a portable radio from her purse, set it on the desk, and began to surf channels. Her favorite station was a local jazz station that played live shows late at night, but it was all static now. Rose tried putting the radio in different spots on the desk, but she had no luck. Then she heard a man’s voice behind her – “Excuse me, darling?”
Rose stiffened her back and placed the radio on the desk. She turned and saw the shadowy outline of a tall, large-framed man standing in the darkness beneath the recently removed light bulb. His shoulders looked strong and intimidating. He could probably snap me in half, Rose thought. Rose’s right hand began to quiver, but she tried her best to choke away her fear and said, “Sir, could you please come around to the other side of the desk? I can’t see you.”
“Oh! Of course my darling.” The shadow moved slowly from darkness to light, appearing to float across the floor with little effort. Rose’s fears were not alleviated when the man entered the light. He was dressed in a black full-body trench coat and wearing a black fedora. He clutched a red shoebox under his left arm. Rose guessed his height to be six feet and seven inches, but his large frame misled her to believe that he was muscular. In fact, he appeared quite sickly with pale, wrinkled skin sagging on his weathered face. He smiled wryly at Rose as he spoke, “I should know better than to sneak up on a pretty little thing like you.”
Rose gulped and said, “This is the nurses’ station. How did you get back here? Why are you here?”
“I talked to a doctor down the hall and she sent me back this way. I’ve come to visit my father. You see, he’s very sick and I don’t know how much longer he has to live.”
This guy must be sixty years old. There’s no way his father is still alive, Rose thought. She asked, “Which doctor sent you down here?”
The man rubbed his forehead, “Well, let me think a minute. You see, I’m not good with names. I think it began with an M.”
The man snapped his fingers and pointed at Rose, “That’s it, darling! McDowell sent me back here.” He lifted the shoebox onto the desk, “She said that I just needed to show you my proof of kinship and you’d let me go see him.” He shook the box. “It’s all in here.”
“Which patient is your father?”
Rose found Vernon’s file and opened it. She noted that there was no next of kin. “The hospital’s file says there is no next of kin.”
The man was calm, “Oh? That’s not surprising, I suppose. My mother left him when she discovered that she was pregnant. He never knew he’d fathered a child. In fact, I’ve never even spoken to my father. I recently tracked him down with help of a lawyer. Then I saw a newspaper clipping about his car accident. Truly awful, but at least he is still alive. Perhaps now I can pay my final – or perhaps my only – respects.”
It wasn’t until he finished speaking that Rose realized she’d been nodding intently with his story. She paused a moment to collect herself before continuing, “And your name is?”
“Gregory Robert Ian Malcolm. I recently had the Ian added to my name after I discovered my father’s middle name is also Ian.” Rose glanced back to the file to verify his claim; he was right. “If you remain skeptical,” he continued. “You can see my proof of kinship here.” He tapped the top of the shoebox with his index finger.
Rose slid the box closer to her and lifted the lid slowly. Inside were two documents. The first was analysis from a DNA test. Rose’s eyes were drawn immediately to a sentence that read “This study has proven that Gregory Robert Malcolm is the biological son of Vernon Ian Goldberg and Allison Lynn Miller.” The second was a letter from a lawyer – Howard Grant Jr. – that verified that Gregory’s search for his father was not in violation of any privacy laws. Rose put the papers back in the box, “Why doesn’t this have your second middle name on it?”
“It took me a month to track down my father after I changed my name. My legal name is now Gregory Robert Ian Malcolm, but it was only Gregory Robert Malcolm when the study was completed.” He laughed, “You can understand why I wanted verification before changing my name to his.”
Rose nodded and placed the lid back on the shoebox. She glanced back down the hall nervously, hoping to see Judith come out of the break room. No luck. She turned back to Gregory, whose smile widened, and said, “I’ll show you where he is.”
Judith sat in silence while watching the city breathe through the picture window in the break room. Occasionally, she would sip from the glass of scotch she poured from the bottle she kept hidden in her employee locker. She propped her feet on the coffee table in front of the old, beat-up recliner she loved to sit in. Her journal rested atop the unopened stack of files for new admissions at the foot of her chair. Judith preferred the day shift in the ICU because there were more things to distract her. There were more people to interact with and there were more patients coming and going throughout the day. The night shift was never noisy or distracting. She always had to face her demons.
Javon Taylor was only sixteen years old when Judith killed him in the ICU. Three years ago, Judith was in her third month of being an attending physician in Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. Javon was admitted to the hospital at 3:34PM, receiving immediate care in the emergency room to remove two bullets that a kid put in him after school that day. One bullet broke three of his ribs and grazed his pulmonary vein; the other went into his stomach. Surgery was successful, but he remained in critical condition. At 9:58pm, Javon went into cardiac arrest and required resuscitation with defibrillators. Judith performed this procedure, but the sudden jerking of his body caused both of his lungs to collapse. She then had to insert a breathing tube to open his chest cavity. Judith’s hurry to insert the breathing tube proved to be a fatal mistake. Javon recoiled at the speed of the insertion, causing the tube to break his windpipe. Javon died at 10:03pm.
Judith picked up her journal and wrote, “Graveyard at the ICU reminds me of Javon. All I hear is people gasping for air and then the silence of their death.” Judith closed her journal and threw it back on the stack of new admission files. She got up, walked to the window, and watched the city breathing softly. Streetlights changed their colors slowly and buses crept calmly from stop to stop. Judith saw a woman holding the hand of a five-or-six-year-old girl and leading her to one of the bus stops. The scene was peaceful until the girl began to fuss. The woman with her began to slap the girl and pull on her arm. Judith shook her head and turned away from the window. She picked her journal back up, opened it to her latest entry, and wrote, “There’s always something going wrong underneath it all.” Judith heard a muffled sound coming from the hallway as she finished the last word. She focused her attention more on the sound and realized that music was playing. She closed her journal quickly, threw it back on the stack of files, and left the break room.
Judith returned to the nurses’ station. Instead of finding Rose, she found Rose’s portable radio lying face up on the desk, blasting jazz music. Judith turned the radio off and called out, “Rose? Where are you?” Moments passed before Rose returned. Judith asked her again where she was.
“Sorry, I was just down at Vernon’s room,” Rose replied.
“How is he?”
“Everything was normal.”
“Good,” Judith replied. She picked up the radio, “Rose, I found this on when I came back. Have you been playing the radio when I’m not around?”
Rose grabbed the radio from her hand, “What, it was on? That’s crazy. I just have it in my purse for my ride to and from work.” Judith crossed her arms. “Okay, sometimes I listen to it during the really late hours. I have it real quiet though.”
“It was pretty loud when I got here. You know this can be distracting, right?”
Rose’s eyes dropped and she said, “Yes. I’m sorry Dr. McDowell. It’ll never happen again.”
Judith held up the radio, “I know it won’t. I’m taking it for the rest of the night.” She slid the radio into the large pocket on the right side of her coat. Then, Judith eyed the clock and noted that only forty-five minutes had passed since she left for the break room. She said, “It’s only been forty-five minutes. I told you to check on him every hour.”
“Oh yeah, well I figured I’d just check everything while I was down there.”
“Right,” Judith said. Then she realized, “Wait, while you were down there? Why were you down there?”
Confused by the question, Rose said, “I showed Gregory to Vernon Goldberg’s room.”
Judith wrinkled her brow, “Who?”
“Gregory Malcolm. You know, the man you told to come down here?”
“What are you talking about?”
Rose crossed her arms and shifted her weight to her left foot, “What do you mean? How can you not remember sending him down here?”
Judith stiffened her back, “Rose, I want you to tell me what this man looks like.”
“Um, he’s tall, wearing a lot of dark clothes, and has a really creepy smile. He’s really sweet though.”
“Why do you think that I sent him down here?”
Rose’s face twisted into a confused smile, “Because he said you did.”
Judith’s eyes widened and she said, “Rose, I didn’t tell anyone to come down here. Who is Gregory Malcolm?”
Rose answered, “He’s Vernon’s son.”
Judith tore through the files strewn about the nurses’ station desk, found Vernon’s file, and opened it. She threw it down on the desk and said, “Rose, he doesn’t have a—” Judith’s voice trailed off. Then she whispered, “That’s so strange.”
Rose stared at Judith for a moment and eventually her eyes drifted down to Vernon’s file. Her jaw dropped as she read,
NEXT OF KIN: GREGORY ROBERT IAN MALCOLM, SON
Judith’s disbelief colored every word she spoke, “I could have sworn he did not have any next of kin.”
Rose shook her head, “He didn’t.”
Judith looked at Rose, “Then why does it say he does?”
“I don’t know. It didn’t say that earlier.”
“What do you mean?”
Rose replied, “When he came in, I double checked his file. It said there was no next of kin. This guy had a shoebox with a DNA test that said Gregory was Vernon’s son and a letter from his attorney saying Gregory’s search for his father was legitimate.”
“Then why does it say that this guy is his next of kin?”
Rose’s gaze met Judith’s as she said, “I don’t know.”
Gregory pulled a chair beside Vernon’s bed and sat down. He watched the man before him struggle to stay alive. He drew closer to the bed and stretched out his arms, placing one hand on Vernon’s mouth and another on his stomach. He muttered, “Sanabitur enim momenta magis.” Then, Gregory stood and gripped the ventilator, pulling it out slowly. Vernon’s eyes shot open and he gasped for a few moments before his breath steadied. Smiling, Gregory threw the ventilator on the floor and said, “Hello, Vernon.”
Vernon’s eyes darted around the room in a panic, “Where am I?”
Gregory sat back down and said, “Faustina Hospital; in the Intensive Care Unit, to be more precise. You’re in room 6A, if you want to be extremely specific.”
Vernon’s gaze met Gregory’s and he said, “Are you a doctor?”
“No, I am an old friend. We’ve not been formally introduced, but I trust you’ve always known I would visit.”
Vernon noticed the ventilator on the floor. “Did you pull that out of me?”
“Then how am I not dead?”
Gregory replied sarcastically, “Do you believe in the healing power of prayer?”
Vernon grunted with disgust, “No.”
“Then why do you think you’re still alive?”
Vernon raised his eyebrow and curled his lip. He turned his gaze back to the ventilator and then back to the man before him. His eyes widened with clarity, “You’re Death.”
Gregory smiled, “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Vernon chuckled, “It’s about damn time, you know?”
“It’s not quite time yet, Vernon.”
Vernon rolled his eyes, “Will it ever be?”
“Yes, very soon. But, I want to talk with you first.”
“Okay, let’s talk. What do you want to talk about?”
“Have you led a happy life, Vernon?”
Vernon replied, “I suppose so, yeah.”
“What did you do that you were especially proud of?”
Vernon thought for a moment, “Well, I built a successful business in New York City.”
Gregory smirked, “That you did. What else?”
“Well, I donated to charity a lot.”
“My parents loved me.” Vernon paused, “Until you came to visit them, that is.”
Gregory replied, “I visit everyone eventually.”
Vernon nodded. Then, he looked at Gregory, “Why the hell do you want to know about all this?”
Gregory folded his hands in his lap, “It’s an insufferable condition that I am in. I am indifferent to your pain because I have no sense of what pain is. But I know it’s not a moment of joy for many of you. You people fear me. You run from me as much as you can.”
“No one escapes,” Vernon said.
“I have no feeling of what it must be like to feel accepted, or to have children, or to create a piece of art,” Gregory continued. “You and I are similar in that regard.”
Vernon’s tone turned defensive, “What are you talking about? My family loved me. They accepted me. How the hell would you know anyway?”
Gregory smirked, “Because they told me as much when I visited them.”
Vernon frowned. “So what? You want to know what it’s like to be human?”
“No, but I am curious as to how humans live their lives,” Gregory said. “I assume that my interest is not unlike the interest scientists have for studying the lives of insects.”
“And so you’ve kept me alive long enough for you to get your fill of what it’s like to talk to people on their deathbed?” Gregory nodded. Vernon sighed, “Then I think I’m done talking to you. Can we just get this over with?”
Gregory nodded, “You’ve been a good enough sport about this, so I’ll give you the choice. Is there any way you would prefer to die?”
Vernon looked at all of the tubes connected to his body: his feeding tube, intravenous fluids, a catheter, and so forth. He looked at Gregory and said, “Give me a lethal dose of painkillers and unhook me from this shit.”
Gregory stood up, “As you wish.”
Judith panicked and hurried down the hallway, “I’m going to Vernon’s room. Call security.” Rose called security from the phone at the nurses’ station and listened to the sound of Judith’s shoes tapping against the ground on her way to the ICU.
Judith arrived in the ICU and noticed nothing was out of the ordinary, hearing only the buzzing of ventilators and beeping of heart monitors. She crept to Vernon’s room and peeked through the curtains. She saw the ventilator tossed on the floor, but there was only Vernon. She rushed into the room and checked Vernon’s vitals. It was too late; he had been dead for minutes. Judith screamed in frustration and pounded her fists on Vernon’s chest. She knew she’d let another patient slip away.
The night guard arrived ten minutes later and found Judith cleaning the room. She had moved the ventilator into the corner, pushed all of the chairs out of the room, and took all of the tubes off Vernon’s bed, etc. She called his time of death at 1:00AM exactly. The guard entered the room and asked, “Is there anything I can do, doctor?”
Judith replied, “No, I think I’ve got this. Have you gotten a chance to review security tapes?”
“Not yet, m’am, but I haven’t seen anyone enter the building all night. I will double check for sure though.”
Judith coiled up the power cord to the ventilator and said, “Let me know what you find out.”
“Will do, m’am,” he said and left the room.
Dr. Winston stroked his chin as he leaned back in his leather chair. He thought for a moment, staring at the beautifully sunny view of Central Park the window in his office afforded him. The moment passed and he looked back at Judith, “Is that all?”
Dr. Winston stood up and walked around the desk, “Not quite, Judith. I know something you don’t. We weren’t going to tell you, but I’m quite certain that you need to know.” He sat down on the desk in front of Judith, “We watched the security tapes.”
“And we don’t know how to respond. First, no one entered the hospital last night fitting that description. Second, Rose Franklin never talked to anyone. We have her on tape carrying on a beautiful conversation with herself, however. The last bit is the strangest of all, though,” Dr. Winston said as he grabbed his laptop out of his bag on the floor. “I think you need to watch for yourself.”
Dr. Winston opened a file of the security tape for Vernon Goldberg from 12:55AM to 1:05AM from the previous night. Everything was normal for the first few seconds, but then a chair moved across the room and stopped beside Vernon’s bed. Then, the ventilator seemed to remove itself and Vernon began carrying on a conversation by himself. The tapes did not have sound, but Judith could clearly read his lips as he said, “You’re Death.” After about three or four minutes of talking, Vernon died. Judith shook her head, “So what does this mean?”
“This means,” Dr. Winston said as he put the laptop back on the desk. “…nothing. This means nothing at all. This never happened, Judith. He had no next of kin and no one came to visit him. We’re not interested in the supernatural at this hospital. So as far as we’re concerned, he died of natural causes.”
“What about Rose?”
“We’ll tell her the same. It’s best that this hospital not get involved in supernatural speculation. It’ll get in the way of our quality medical care.”
Judith’s eyes dropped and she thought for a few moments. Then, she said, “So that’s it then? He died of natural causes at 1:00AM?”
Judith sat in silence for a few moments before getting up to leave. She opened the door, paused, and turned back to Dr. Winston, “So what should I believe?”
Dr. Winston said, “As far as I’m concerned, Dr. McDowell, you are entitled to believe whatever the hell you want. So as long as you don’t share your beliefs with anyone, then I’ll be perfectly happy.” Judith nodded and left.
Judith walked to the main entrance of the hospital, paused, and pulled out her journal. She clicked her pen and finished her latest entry. She read the words to herself under her breath.
“Maybe I didn’t do anything wrong. The Reaper comes for everyone eventually.” She put her journal in her bag and walked outside, smiling as the warmth of the sun embraced her.