It sounded like a creaky door. Or a lazily deflating balloon. Or a territorial humpback moaning out its claim to the waters of the North Pacific.
What it didn’t sound like was lungs. At least not healthy, normal lungs.
Mai Fitzgerald closed her eyes and adjusted her grip on the stethoscope. It was all there—the prolonged expiratory phase, the diffuse high-pitched wheezing, the hoarse... junkiness classic for chronic bronchitis. She imagined the patient’s breath, hot and frantic, scrambling to make it through her tight, scarred airways. Sort of like how she, just hours before, had inched forward bumper-to-bumper on the 405, desperate to make it to the hospital on time for her eleventh of twelve consecutive night shifts.
The patient coughed, sparking another chorus of rattling wheezes. She needed a breathing treatment. What she really needed, Mai thought, was a new set of lungs. But a breathing treatment would have to do for now.
The cold hand on her shoulder made her jump. Mai stood back. The patient was talking, her barrel chest working overtime to get the words out.
Mai took the stethoscope out of her ears. “What was that?”
The patient nodded. “Exactly.” She turned her sunken eyes to the door.
...I REPEAT, CODE RED. BASEMENT LEVEL
Mai turned back to the patient. “That’s nothing,” she said. “Code Red just means fire.”
“Fire?” The patient shot up in bed, sparking another coughing fit.
Mai waited for her to finish, then leaned in to reposition the oxygen cannula that had slipped out of her nostrils. “Happens all the time. Someone probably got caught smoking in the stairwell. It’s never actually a fire.”
The patient collapsed back into bed. Her eyes relaxed, betraying a relief she didn’t waste any words verbalizing.
“Speaking of smoking, Ms. Kalendra, we really need to talk about cutting back.” Mai sat on the edge of the bed to convey compassion, the way she’d been taught. “I can give you medicine to help you breathe better now, but getting rid of those cigarettes is going to help you more than anything I can do.”
The patient nodded, but her mind was already elsewhere. Her eyes were glued to the muted TV where an entirely different hospital drama was silently unraveling, her thin pursed lips moving along to the closed captioning on the bottom of the screen.
Mai shrugged and stood up. There had been a time at the beginning of her intern year, just a few months before, when she would have taken this sort of indifference personally. She would have turned off the TV, pulled up photos of post-mortem smokers’ lungs to share with Ms. Kalendra, then given an inspiring off-the-cuff speech that would leave her no choice but to swear off cigarettes for good. But not anymore. Her intern year had taught her a lot, not the least of which was the very hard truth that, despite her degree, despite her training, despite all of the best intentions in the world, Mai was essentially powerless.
“I’ll get that breathing treatment cooking for you.”
“Thanks, sweetie,” croaked Ms. Kalendra. “Can you turn the volume back up now?”
The hallway was noiseless—an eerie but welcomed change from the bustling chaos that defined the wards by light of day. Mai rubbed a fresh pump of sanitizer into her dry, tired hands. She waited for it to dry, then logged into the computer across from the nurses’ station. The sharp scent of isopropyl alcohol singed her nostrils, but wasn’t quite enough to stifle a gargantuan yawn as Ms. Kalendra’s chart loaded on the screen in front of her.
“Just two more nights,” she told herself.
Then vacation. The first of her intern year. It was only a week. Six days, really, considering she was going to spend the first day of it recovering from this run of nightshifts. Either way, it was long overdue.
Ms. Kalendra’s chart came to life. Mai repressed the thoughts of her holiday to come, then clicked through all the necessary tabs to order a fresh Albuterol-Ipratropium nebulizer, and a nicotine patch, and a three-part “No Butts: The Basics of Smoking Cessation” video series that Ms. Kalendra would have to complete before she could watch any more of her soap opera.
Mai let out another, slightly less-conspicuous yawn as she checked her pager to make sure there wasn’t any more business to attend to. There wasn’t. The pager was empty. She made a point not to verbalize her relief and tempt fate. Instead, she logged off the computer and took her phone from her pocket.
Hey Carter, she texted as she made her way toward the elevator. Just saw Ms. K. Still a bit wheezy, but otherwise doing well. Gonna give her another Duoneb.
Mai had never been superstitious before starting residency, but that had only lasted as long as her first day on call back in July. Two Code Blues and a record-setting number of admissions were enough to make anyone think twice about the color of their underwear. There was something about this job that just seemed to defy reason. Any time she thought about the sound of her pager, or altered her routine, or so much as muttered the Q word, all hell would break loose as if it had only been waiting for some sort of cue.
Mai paced the floor as she waited for the elevator, wondering if superstition was something she’d ever be able to shake after finishing residency. Or if, after just six months on the job, this was her new normal.
The ping in her pocket rang out at the same time as the ping of the elevator.
Mai checked her phone. It was Carter.
She rolled her eyes as she boarded the elevator. “OK,” was about as extensive as any of the conversations she’d had with her senior resident over the past ten days. Carter was clearly burned out. Most people would be after nearly three years of grueling eighty-hour work weeks. But to disappear into his call room and binge Project Runway while his fledgling intern managed the hospital all by herself? It wasn’t ideal.
Mai glanced at her watch as she stepped off the elevator. It was nearly midnight. She took a deep breath. All things considered, it had been a very quie—silent night thus far. In all the nights that had preceded this one, not once had she even come close to thinking about a nap. There was just too much to do. Too many pages to answer. Too many sick people who needed her attention. But the way things seemed to be settling down now—
Mai trudged optimistically past the cafeteria, foregoing the fourth cup of coffee she’d allotted herself to get through the rest of the night, then turned down the long, windowless corridor behind the Custodial Services office that led to the call rooms.
It was a bleak walk. For such a beautiful city with such stunning views, it was a wonder that the entire hospital hadn’t been built out of glass so that everyone could see outside. For her part, though, Mai found the lack of windows oddly comforting. She knew well enough that the world was still spinning outside without her in it. She didn’t need windows to remind her of everything she was missing. The restaurants. The parties. The social life. The better part of her youth.
In what was slowly becoming something of a ritual, Mai imagined all the different directions her life could have taken had she never sworn the Hippocratic Oath. Maybe she would’ve been an interior designer. Or a programmer. Or a sales associate at Zales. Maybe she’d still be in a loving relationship with Charles, her former boyfriend of four-and-a-half years, who’d finally broken things off nearly two weeks ago after multiple warnings and one final atomic meltdown on Mai’s behalf when he’d slipped and used the Q word to describe a particular brand of Sour Cream & Onion chips just hours before her first night shift.
“But at least I’m doing something important,” she said to herself as she reached for the door to the call rooms.
The bleating screech of Mai’s pager rang throughout the corridor.
Mr. Parker in Room 4267 hasn’t had a BM in 2 days. Pls order laxative.
Mai shook her head and holstered her pager. Important indeed.
The call room computer was slow, the anguished hum of its outdated hard-drive loud enough to drown out the snores from the call room next door. Mai tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for each medication to load. A laxative. Then a stool softener. Then a suppository. Then the option for an enema if none of those did the trick. Whatever it took to get Mr. Parker’s bowels to move and avoid another unnecessary page at 3:00 A.M. Finally, with everything loaded, she signed the orders, slipped off her shoes, and collapsed onto the stiff twin-sized mattress.
The junior resident call room wasn’t much to behold. In fact, to call it anything other than bleak would have been a gross mischaracterization. Everywhere else in the hospital—what everybody else saw—was beautiful. The lobby was filled with leather furniture and natural light. The waiting rooms were stocked with modern art of both the painted and sculpted variety. And all the patient rooms came standard with hardwood floors, curtained windows, and a fresh coat of soothing robin-egg blue paint.
The 5’ x 7’ closet where the doctor slept, though? Those walls were stark white from floor-to-ceiling, the carpet an uninspired and deeply stained dark blue, and the only artwork to speak of was the numerical graffiti of some poor intern from a bygone era who had scrawled out his calculations for a patient’s creatinine clearance on the wall above the bed. And the bed itself wasn’t much better. The mattress was stiff, the box spring creaky, and the frame rocked with even the slightest change in position. But at least the sheets were clean. At that point, even if they weren’t, Mai probably wouldn’t have cared. She was that tired.
She checked her watch one more time as she nestled into the unyielding mattress. 12:33. Just six more hours to go.
She closed her eyes.
RAPID RESPONSE. FIRST FLOOR, WEINBERG TOWER. I REPEAT, RAPID RESPONSE. FIRST FLOOR, WEINBERG TOWER.
Mai had her shoes on and was out the door before the announcement finished, the bed still just as cold as it had been an hour before.
Of all the new and conflicting feelings that Mai had already become so familiar with in her first six months of intern year, there was still none quite as paralyzing as the dread she felt any time she was the first to arrive for a Rapid Response. Which is exactly how she found herself there, in the first-floor lobby of the Weinberg Oncology Tower: alone. And this time even more alone than usual. Normally, by the time she arrived on scene, there were already a few nurses or a lab tech or maybe a pharmacist getting things started. But this time, as the elevator doors slid open and she saw the gaunt figure slumped quietly against the wall without anyone else around him, Mai’s heart rate tripled about twice as fast as it normally would.
“Sir?” she said, rushing over to his side. “Sir? Are you okay?”
The man looked up, his eyes tired and distant. He was thin, balding, probably late forties or early fifties, his olive-colored skin painted black with what looked like soot. “I hope so,” he coughed.
Thank God, Mai thought as she squatted down beside him. He’s breathing. He’s talking. He has a pulse. She felt her own pulse along the base of her wrist. It was bounding. “Who called the Rapid?” She looked around, pleading silently for somebody, anybody to come to her rescue.
“I did,” he said, tapping the radio attached to his utility belt next to his hospital badge. He coughed again, the unmistakeable scent of smoke billowing from his lungs.
“Code Red.” He took a deep, wheezy breath. “Fire.”
Mai took the stethoscope from around her neck, a million questions racing through her head. “Are you having trouble breathing?”
The man nodded. “A little.”
She listened to his lungs. They were surprisingly clear with the exception of a faint, rattling cough after each deep breath she had him take.
“Are you burnt?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. I got out before it got real bad.”
“How bad was it?” Mai could feel her mouth going dry.
The man shook his head, his eyes glazed over.
“Is the fire still going?”
It was then that the elevator doors behind them swung open and a pack of gloved nurses and techs poured into the lobby. “Rapid Response Team. What we got?”
Thank God. Mai stood up and slung the stethoscope over her neck. “Middle-aged male, inhalation injury with some moderate dyspnea.” She tried to speak assertively, hoping the slight waver in her voice didn’t betray how nervous she really felt. “Let’s get an O2 sat and a full set of vitals.”
And, just like that, the man was surrounded, one set of hands applying a blood pressure cuff, another starting an IV, another sifting through his wallet for his insurance card.
“What’s your name, sir?”
“Eusebio.” The man coughed as he spoke. “Eusebio De Luca. Environmental Services.” He reached for his hospital badge, but had his arm pulled back by the nurse attaching a registration band to his wrist.
“Let’s transfer to the ER as soon as we’re ready,” Mai said, arms crossed as she watched the nurse secure his IV in place. “Mr. De Luca.” She squatted down next to the patient. “We’re going to check you into the Emergency Room.”
“Is everything okay?” he said, the waver in his voice much more audible than Mai’s.
“Your oxygen level is a bit low. We just need to do a few tests, maybe give you a breathing treatment or two. But you’ll be fine.”
“Do you think... Am I going to have to stay here overnight?” The fear in his eyes was palpable.
Mai shrugged. “We’ll see.”
“Okay, doc.” One of the techs rolled over a wheelchair. “Ready to go.”
Mai held Mr. De Luca by his arm as she and one of the nurses helped him to his feet, a plume of soot billowing up as he plopped into the chair.
“Feel better, Mr. De Luca,” she said as they wheeled him down the hallway in the direction of the ER, the haunting scent of smoke trailing in his wake.
“Can we call off the Rapid now, doc?”
“Sure.” Mai nodded, then turned to one of the nurses. “Have you heard anything about that Code Red from earlier?”
The nurse shrugged. “Probably just someone smoking. We don’t respond to those anyway, doctor. That’s for environmental services.” She packed up her IV kit and joined the rest of the Rapid Response Team on the waiting elevator. “Have a good night!”
Mai watched as the elevator doors slid closed. Just like that, she was alone again.
RAPID RESPONSE ALL CLEAR. I REPEAT, RAPID RESPONSE ALL CLEAR.
It was a long walk back to the call room, the labyrinthine layout of the hospital forcing Mai to take two different stairwells, a skybridge, and a restricted-access detour through the GI suite just to find herself back in the main building. It would have been quicker to take the elevator, but her heart was still racing and she knew she could use some time to cool off.
“You did good,” she told herself, her halting voice reverberating feebly throughout the empty corridor. “You did everything you were supposed to.”
She tried to imagine how Brand-New-Intern Mai would have handled that situation six months before. No doubt she would have frozen. Wouldn’t have even thought to ask for vitals. Probably would’ve forgotten to listen to his lungs. “See, Mai,” she said, trying her best to conjure up an extra dose of confidence. “You can do this.”
Her phone pinged. She reached into her pocket.
It was Carter.
Hey Mai. U make it to that Rapid? All good?
Again, Mai rolled her eyes. It was a wonder why he even bothered to come into the hospital at all if he was never going to be around to help out.
Yeah, Mai texted as she walked. Environmental Services guy with some dyspnea. Transferred to the ER. I’ll write the note.
She slid her phone back into her pocket and opened the door to the stairwell.
Her phone pinged again.
Thanks. Sorry about that. I’m a bit tied up with a situation down here in the basement.
Mai stopped halfway up the first flight of stairs. What kind of situation?
She waited for Carter to respond, a different sort of dread filling her chest. As well as she’d been managing the hospital by herself, it was never a good look to have your senior resident putting out fires for you. She checked her pager to make sure she hadn’t missed something important. There were no new pages. Just the Rapid Response, and the laxative, and the Code Red from earlier.
Mai re-holstered the pager and took a long, deep breath. That was when she smelled the smoke. It was faint. At first, she wasn’t sure if her mind was just playing tricks on her. But the more breaths she took, the more she was convinced it was real.
She checked her phone one more time. Still nothing from Carter.
She leaned over the handrail and looked down the stairwell. It was dark and hazy, the bottom much farther down than she’d expected. By this point, the stiff twin-sized mattress in her shoebox of a call room was more appealing than ever, but that would have to wait. She pocketed her phone, took another deep, exasperated breath, and made her way down the stairs to the basement.
Mai had never been to the basement of the hospital before, but by the looks of it she hadn’t missed much. The wide, pragmatic corridors were dimly lit. Stuffed trash carts and cleaning trollies were parked sloppily against the white cinderblock walls. There were no patients. There was no reason for Mai to be there at all. Yet, there she was.
The hallway to her right led to the service elevator, so she turned to the left. Her footsteps echoed as she walked. One of the lights flickered overhead. It was eerie. Mai felt a bit like an expendable character in a horror movie. But notably, and much to her relief, she didn’t smell smoke. She checked her phone once more—still nothing from Carter—so she kept walking. Past the microbiology lab, past the laundry office, past all the carts stuffed with dirty linens and scrubs, all the way to the end of the hallway.
Mai jumped at the sound of her pager. She silenced it and took it from its holster.
Ms. Whitaker in Rm 3641 is asking for something to help her sleep.
Mai slipped the pager into the back pocket of her scrubs so she’d remember to deal with that later. And then she felt a crunch under her shoe. She lifted up her foot. It was broken glass, a pile of it beneath an empty fire extinguisher cabinet. And next to it, hanging from the wall, was a tangle of wires from a dismantled fire alarm. Mai gulped. She looked around. To the left was a dead end filled with stacks of boxes and unused ventilators. To the right was another long hallway, this one even darker. But at the end there was a light, bright and unwavering. And then, again, the smell of smoke.
Mai hurried down the dark hallway, more anxious than ever to figure out what was going on so she could get back to her call room and give Ms. Whitaker something for sleep and maybe get a couple hours herself. She hurried past Nutritional Services, then the Security office, then Shipping & Receiving—all of them empty, everything quie—silent, the smell of smoke growing stronger the farther she went.
Gradually, the light came into focus. It was coming from another office, but it wasn’t until Mai reached the end of the hallway that she realized it was the cashier, and it wasn’t until she peeked through the stiff bronze bars lining the window that she realized someone was inside.
“Excuse me,” Mai said.
The stout old woman, who was sitting with her back to the window busily punching numbers into an oversized adding machine, spun around in her chair. She had tight, curly white hair and wore wide-rimmed coke-bottle glasses. “Ready to check out?” She slowly rolled her chair over to the window and held out a plump, tremulous hand.
“No, sorry. I work here,” Mai said. She checked her watch. “You’re still open at 1:30 in the morning?”
The cashier withdrew her hand and slowly rolled her chair back to the adding machine. “Hospitals are 24/7 businesses, my dear. We’re always open.”
Mai frowned. “Do you smell that? Smoke? Am I going crazy?”
But the cashier either didn’t hear or was too engrossed with her adding machine to care.
“Was there a fire? Is this where the Code Red was?”
Mai clenched her jaw. Her nightly reservoir of patience was nearly exhausted, and she still had five more hours to go in her shift. “What about my senior resident? Was he down here? Tall, glasses, curly brown hair and a goatee?”
Without turning away from her work, the cashier lifted her arm and pointed to the left.
Mai reached into her pocket and silenced the pager. She looked to her left, down another long and dimly lit hallway. “Thanks.”
She took off down the hallway, the smell of smoke growing stronger and stronger the farther she went. She lifted up the neck of her scrub top to cover her mouth. There was a door up ahead—a double door, like the ones that sealed off the sterile interiors of the operating rooms from the rest of the contaminated world. Mai could hear voices from behind the door. They were shouting. As she came to a stop in front of the door, she could see smoke seeping out from underneath it.
She took out her phone. Still nothing from Carter.
Are you okay? she texted. Is there a fire?
She touched the door. It was warm. There was more shouting. Then a loud crash. Then a long, serpentine hiss. Mai pushed the door, but it didn’t budge. She touched her hospital ID to the badge reader on the wall. It blinked red. Access denied.
“Hello?” she said.
She checked her phone again. Nothing.
“Hello?” she said again, louder this time. “What’s going on in there?” She knocked on the door, the metal warm against her knuckles. “Do I need to call for help?”
“God! What?” Mai shouted as she took the pager from her back pocket.
MR HERNANDEZ RM 7113 HAVING SIEZURE
Mai turned and sprinted down the hall in the direction of the stairs, the smoke still seeping out from under the door behind her.
It was hard for Mai to imagine how anyone in the hospital could rest peacefully surrounded by three nurses, a pharmacy tech, a respiratory therapist, and one very stressed-out intern at 2:00 A.M, but that’s exactly how Mr. Hernandez in Room 7113 looked after being zonked out on benzos and a 1000 mg loading dose of Keppra.
“All set, doc?” the RT said from his position at the head of the bed.
Mai nodded as she signed off on the order for a STAT Brain CT.
She watched as they rolled Mr. Hernandez’s bed out of the room. The moment he was out of sight, her mind flipped back to that smoking door in the basement. She checked her phone, but there was no service and still nothing from Carter. She checked her pager. There was another reminder for her to put in a sleep med for Ms. Whitaker in room 3641, but nothing new. Certainly nothing about a fire.
She looked at one of the nurses. “You didn’t hear another Code Red, did you?”
The nurse frowned. “Code Red? You don’t respond to those, doctor.”
“Yeah, I know. I just…” Mai shook her head.
The nurse shook her head too. “Get some rest, doctor. You look tired.”
Mai watched her leave. Just like that, she was alone again.
Her first instinct was to hurry back down to the basement. But there was no way past that door, and even if she could get through, what could a mere intern do to stop a fire? She needed help. More than just Carter. She needed people with access and equipment who knew what they were doing.
She checked her phone again. There was still no service, so she picked up Mr. Hernandez’s room phone and dialled 0.
“Yes,” Mai said. “I’d like to dial out, please.”
Mai cleared her throat. “911.”
The operator chuckled. “Is this some kinda joke? You’re already at the hospital, honey. You need me to call you a Rapid Response?”
“No. I need the Fire Department.”
Mai could hear the operator chewing on something. Chips or popcorn or celery sticks. “The Fire Department. What for?”
“I think there’s a fire in the basement.”
The chewing stopped. The line went silent.
“Hello?” Mai said.
“Hold the line, please.”
The hold music wasn’t exactly soothing. The fast-paced synthesizers and staccato beats only served to rev up Mai’s anxiety even further as she paced the length of the phone cord back and forth. She scrolled through her pager, reminding herself out loud to put in Ms. Whitaker’s sleep med as soon as she got off the phone. She checked her own phone again out of habit. Still no service. Still nothing from Carter.
Finally, the music cut off. There was a click on the line.
“Good evening,” said a polished, masculine voice.
“Hello, I need to report a fire at Memorial Hospital.”
Mai could hear the man breathing on the other end, but he didn’t respond, so she kept going. “It must have started about an hour and a half, two hours ago. Our own environmental services department responded to it, but I’m concerned it’s spreading and now it’s more than we can control on our own.”
Again, nothing on the other end. Just deep, heavy breathing.
And then a throaty chuckle. And then applause. “Very well done, Mai. Beautiful delivery.”
Mai was speechless.
“I’m pronouncing that correctly, am I not? Mai? As in, ‘My, what an awful predicament you seem to have found yourself in.’”
Mai gulped. “How do you know my name?”
“Oh, I know a lot about you, Dr. Fitzgerald. Let’s see here…” There was the sound of slow, deliberate typing in the background. “Originally from Santa Clarita. Father is a urologist, mother an orthodontist. Graduated from Stanford with a BS in Biochemistry. 92nd percentile on the MCAT. Med School at UCLA. 93rd percentile on your boards.” The man sighed, then chuckled again. “My, Mai. You have quite the impressive resume.”
Mai felt a cold chill run through her body. “Who are you?”
The man gasped. “I’m hurt you haven’t recognized my voice. Have you not seen our hospital’s commercials?”
“I don’t watch TV.”
“Why of course not. No time for TV on an intern’s busy schedule.” Again, that same gruff chuckle. “This is Athemar Phillips.”
Mai was silent.
“CEO of Memorial Hospital. Your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I, uh…” Mai closed her eyes and ran a hand over her tired face. This was shaking up to be one hell of a night shift.
“I’d like to have a word with you, Mai. In person.”
Again, Mai gulped. “Now?” She checked her watch. It was nearly 2:00 A.M.
“Hospitals are 24/7 businesses, my dear. Now, if you would, please, make your way to my office on the ninth floor.”
“What about the fire?” Mai could feel the perspiration collecting on her brow.
He chuckled again. “I assure you we have the situation under control. Now, please, come on up.”
Mai had never been to the top floor of the hospital before, and by the looks of it, there was a reason for that. The floors were marble. The hallway was lined with hand-sculpted statues. A decadent golden chandelier hung from the vaulted ceiling above, and at the end of the hallway a spiral staircase led to an even higher level than what the elevator could reach. Nothing about the place even remotely resembled a hospital. Mai felt as out of place as she ever had in her untucked scrubs and loosely tied ponytail. Yet, there she was.
“Yoo-hoo! Up here!”
Mai looked up to the top of the spiral staircase where a lanky, bearded man in shirt and tie was waving at her. “Dr. Abramowitz?”
“Hello, Mai,” he smiled somewhat sheepishly. “Come on up. Mr. Phillips is waiting for you.”
Mai tried her best to make sense of the situation she found herself in, seated across the desk from her hospital’s CEO and next to her program director and mentor at 2:00 A.M on a Thursday. She even tried pinching herself—actually pinching herself—to see if maybe she’d just fallen asleep in the call room and the Rapid Response and the fire and the seizure and... this, were all just a dream. But it wasn’t. The pinch hurt, her skin blanched white from the pressure of her fingers. Mai watched the color return to the back of her hand, still perplexed, as Mr. Phillips rambled on about Medicare reimbursement rates and the rising cost of overhead.
He was an imposing figure, Mr. Phillips. Even seated behind his desk, Mai could see that he wasn’t tall. But what he lacked in height, he easily made up for with his strict posture and barrel chest and tailored three-piece suit. “Anyway, all that’s beside the point,” he huffed, then reached under his desk and produced three crystal shot glasses.
Mai watched as he uncorked a nearly empty bottle of 25-year Macallan and topped off all three glasses.
“What matters is that we’ve got this completely under control.”
He slid two of the glasses across the desk to Mai and Dr. Abramowitz, then took the third in his own hand.
“Oh, no thank you,” Mai said, vehemently shaking her head, suddenly even more uncomfortable than she had been just moments before.
Mr. Phillips shrugged, then took Mai’s glass in his other hand. “Suit yourself.” He downed both glasses back-to-back, loudly exhaled the fiery fumes, then hurled the glasses one after the other against the wall to his left.
Mai flinched as the glasses exploded, then flinched again as Dr. Abramowitz followed suit next to her, the shards from his glass falling on top of an already substantial pile of shattered crystal.
Dr. Abramowitz belched, the sour scent of drunkenness filling the air.
Mai shrunk deeper into her chair. She looked around the room, only now realizing that it was strangely empty, especially when compared to the garish decadence of the lobby outside. There was no art, there were no photos or awards or framed newspaper articles hanging on the walls. The desk was empty, save for a phone and the nearly empty bottle of scotch, and the book case behind Mr. Phillips’ desk was completely bare. In the corner, though, on the other side of the room, there was a stack of boxes, all taped and labeled, a moving dolly perched at the ready against the wall.
Mai turned back to Mr. Phillips. “What’s going on here?”
“Mai.” Dr. Abramowitz placed a hand on her shoulder, but she pulled away.
“Please, Mai, tell us,” Mr. Phillips said, stifling a belch of his own. “Why did you feel the need to call the Fire Department?”
“Because there’s a fire!” Mai all but shouted, her frustration boiling over. “In the basement. Right now!”
“Well that would make sense, wouldn’t it?” Mr. Phillips said, leaning back in his chair with his smallish hands folded over his sizeable gut. “Now, did you actually happen to see this fire with those big, beautiful brown eyes of yours?”
Mai opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“But I smelled it. And there was smoke! And the fire extinguisher was missing.”
Beside her, Dr. Abramowitz cleared his throat.
“And I saw someone who was in the fire!” Mai sat forward. “I sent him to the ER.”
Neither man said a word.
“There was a Code Red! Didn’t you hear the Code Red?”
Dr. Abramowitz chuckled. “Mai, you know that just means someone got caught smoking in the bathroom.”
“Are you kidding me?” Mai was incredulous. “There’s a fire!”
Mr. Phillips smiled a warm, confident smile. “There is no fire, Mai.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Dr. Abramowitz clapped. “Aha! There’s one. ‘How can you be so sure?’ Drink up!”
Mr. Phillips shook his head, chuckling to himself as he poured out the rest of the Macallan, then took a fresh bottle from underneath his desk. “One can never truly be sure in this line of work, can one, Winfield?”
Dr. Abramowitz shook his head with an exaggerated sigh. “Not in the slightest.”
“Medicine is a game of risk, Mai,” Mr. Phillips said as he slid another filled glass over to Dr. Abramowitz. “I’m sure this will become clear to you as you progress in your training. But, for now, please take it from me. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. It’s all just how the cards fall.”
He knocked back his shot with a throaty gulp, then waited for Dr. Abramowitz to do the same.
Mai flinched again as the glasses exploded against the wall.
“Good toss, Winfield!” Mr. Phillips cackled, reaching across the desk to high-five the pie-eyed doctor. “A south paw! Were you a pitcher?”
Dr. Abramowitz guffawed. “No. But maybe I should’ve been.”
Mai could hardly believe what she was seeing. Or hearing. Or smelling. “But what about the patients? What happens to them when you lose?”
“Aha!” Dr. Abramowitz jumped to his feet, grasping Mai’s shoulder once more to stabilize himself. “That’s on the list too.” He took a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket, opened it, and slammed it onto Mr. Phillips’ desk. “Right there,” he pointed. “‘What about the patients?’”
Mr. Phillips shook his head, a devilish smirk on his doughy face. “My, my, Mai. You’re not making this any easier for me now, are you?” He took two fresh shot glasses from beneath his desk, filled them, and started the whole routine over again.
“This hospital is filled with sick people!” Mai shouted over the sound of shattering crystal. “You can’t take risks with their lives.”
Mr. Phillips wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his coat. “Oh, but I can. And I must. That’s just business, darling.”
Mai turned to her program director, Dr. Abramowitz—the man who had interviewed her for this job, who’d taught her how to use a pager, who’d shown her the importance of treating patients as humans and not just illnesses. “Dr. Abramowitz, what’s going on?”
Slowly, the drunken doctor’s smile faded, his face taking on that same phlegmatic, dispassionate expression that Mai had come to know so well over the past six months. “Mai, it’s complicated.”
“No, it’s not. This building is on fire. People are going to die if we don’t do something, and you two are up here playing drinking games!”
“Look, Mai,” he touched her shoulder again.
Mai slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me.”
“Mai, you’re a good intern. A hard-working intern. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now: people like you are the very backbone of our healthcare system. But you know as well as I do that it’s not the backbone that tells the rest of the body what to do, right? I mean, you didn’t have to go to med school to figure that out.” He let out a nasally chuckle.
Mai was not amused.
“Look,” he said, tenting his fingers as he spoke. “It’s our job, as the brain, to decide what’s best for the body as a whole. It’s your job, as the backbone, not to question, but to listen. Have faith. Do the work. Get the job done. Keep your head low and stay quie—”
“Don’t!” Mai held out her hand. “Don’t say it.”
Mr. Phillips chuckled from the other side of the desk, his eyes darting back and forth between Mai and Dr. Abramowitz. “Don’t say what, Mai?” His eyes narrowed, an even more devilish smirk appearing on his face. “Quiet?”
CODE GRAY, ROOM 6462 BED B. I REPEAT, CODE GRAY, ROOM 6462 BED B.
Mai’s pager went off to announce it as well, though she could hardly hear the beeping over the roaring laughter of the two men.
“Code Gray!” Mr. Phillips slapped the desk. “What does that mean?”
“Violent patient,” Dr. Abramowitz said, managing to hold his own laughter long enough to explain.
“Violent patient, huh? Well, you know what I say to that?” Mr. Phillips reached beneath his desk and produced a fresh pair of shot glasses.
Mai didn’t bother sticking around. She holstered her pager and pushed away from the desk, catching a glimpse of stacked fire extinguishers in the corner of the room as she hurried out the door.
“We’re all going to die!”
Mai could hear the shouting as soon as the elevator doors opened on the sixth floor. She was already short of breath by the time she reached room 6462. What she saw there nearly took what little she had left.
It was Mr. De Luca, the man from Environmental Services, the one she’d sent to the ER just a few hours before, and he was naked. Completely naked, a fire extinguisher clutched possessively to his bare chest as he stood trembling in the corner of the room surrounded by nurses and hospital security.
His eyes lit up when he saw Mai. “Doctor! Thank God you’re here. You smelled the smoke. Tell them! We’re all going to burn alive.”
Everyone in the room—the nurses, the security guards, even the elderly lady in Bed A pretending to sleep through the whole ordeal—turned to face Mai.
Mai cleared her through. “Ummm, what’s going on here?”
“He’s delirious,” said the red-headed nurse nearest to Mr. De Luca. “He thinks the hospital is on fire. We found him roaming the hallway looking for fire extinguishers. It took all of us to get him back in the room.” She shook her head. “He’s a feisty one.”
The burly security guard next to her held up a ripped hospital gown to prove her point.
Mai turned back to Mr. De Luca. “Sir, why don’t you put your gown on and get back into bed?”
“Get back into bed? Are you kidding me? The hospital will be up in flames any minute! The only place I’m going is the hell out of here!” He lowered his shoulder and sprinted for the door.
The smack of bare skin against cold tile floor rang throughout the room.
“Sorry.” The burly security guard looked around sheepishly rubbing his shoulder as the fire extinguisher rolled across the floor, then under the bed.
Mai pushed through the pack of nurses and squatted down next to Mr. De Luca. “Eusebio,” she said, scanning his chest for breathing, looking at his pupils to make sure they were equal and reactive. “Let’s get you back into bed. You need oxygen.”
“Why do you think I need oxygen?” His eyes were livid. “It’s because I was in a fire!”
Mai took a deep breath. She could still smell the smoke on him. Little balls of soot-stained sweat rolled down the side of his face. At first glance, it sure seemed like there must have been a fire. But now, suddenly, Mai wasn’t so sure. After all, she’d never actually seen anything burning. Maybe the Code Red was someone smoking in the bathroom. Maybe the smoke she smelled in the basement was coming from the furnace room. Maybe Mr. De Luca was delirious after all. “We’re just trying to help you, Eusebio.”
“And I’m just trying to help you!” he shouted. “You have to believe me. It’s coming. You can’t see it, but it’s coming. And it’s getting bigger! If we don’t do something now it’s going to be too late!” He sat up and looked around the room. “Please, somebody. Anybody. Listen to me.”
Mai put a hand on his shoulder. His skin was warm. “Eusebio.”
He looked at her, his desperate eyes shrouded in tears. “Please.”
Mai watched, frozen, as his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He gasped, then fell back against the legs of the burley security guard.
The red-headed nurse shook her head as she pulled the syringe out of his arm.
“What was that?” Mai gasped.
“Oh, this old thing?” The nurse held up the syringe with a smile. “A delirium special. Just what the doctor ordered.”
“I didn’t order anything,” Mai said as the other nurses and security guards lifted Mr. De Luca’s limp body into bed.
“Your senior resident did.” The red-headed nurse winked. “While we were waiting for you to get here.”
Mai looked around the room. “Carter?” She took out her phone. She had service, but there was still nothing from Carter.
Hey, where ARE you? WHAT’S GOING ON?!
She pocketed her phone and looked back at Mr. De Luca. He seemed so much more peaceful. Eyes closed, oxygen flowing into his nose, hospital gown draped loosely over his body. But seeing him lying there, unconscious, Mai couldn’t help but feel an impending sense of doom.
“Maybe our night will be a little more Q now,” the red-headed nurse said as she deposited her syringe into the sharps receptacle.
Mai crouched down to look for the fire extinguisher, but then—
She unholstered the pager from her waistband.
Good Morning, Doctor Fitzgerald. Urgent paperwork for patient on Floor X, Room 3. Please come immediately.
“Floor X?” Mai frowned. “Where is that?”
The red-headed nurse scoffed. “No place you or I belong, sweetie.”
Mai showed her the page.
The nurse looked at her pager, then at one of the other nurses, then back to Mai, her mouth hanging agape.
Mai checked her phone again as the elevator door closed in front of her. Still nothing from Carter. She checked her watch. It was 03:35. The night was flying by. Vacation still felt like a lifetime away, but at the rate things were going it would be there soon enough. She thought about how nice it would be to sleep in her own bed, at night, without an alarm to ruin it. Maybe she would go out to eat. At a restaurant. A nice one. Maybe wear something other than scrubs for a change. Be a normal person. That sort of thing.
The elevator started climbing and all of a sudden she was thinking about her ex again. Usually Mai would do just about anything for a Q night, but the one nice thing about those non-Q nights was that she never had time to think about sad things. There in the elevator, though, with a minute or so of protected alone time, her mind was free to wander, and Charles was the first place it landed.
She took out her phone again. She opened her Instagram. She took a deep breath and unblocked his profile, then scrolled through his photos, old and new. There were a lot of new. Already. Just two weeks after dumping her. She clenched her jaw. She briefly considered commenting on a new photo, maybe the one of him standing next to the co-worker she’d always been suspicious of, but then thought better of it. She blocked his profile again, closed her phone, and couldn’t help but wonder if he really was better off without her after all.
The elevator pinged as it arrived once again on the ninth floor. Mai stepped off, the shock of the opulence still present, but not nearly as striking as the first time she’d seen it. She walked along the marble-laden floor, counting out the statues the way the nurse had told her to, intentionally avoiding any wayward glance in the direction of Mr. Phillips’ office at the top of the spiral staircase.
The bleating screech rang throughout the cavernous hallway.
Good Morning, Doctor Fitzgerald. Just a reminder that this matter is urgent. Please hurry.
Mai cursed under her breath and picked up the pace. Finally, she counted out the fourteenth bust on the right side of the hallway. It was an old, mostly-balded man with a full walrus-style mustache and an antique doctor’s head mirror affixed to his scalp. Mai looked around, then pinched the old man’s nose and turned it clockwise.
The wall behind the old bust rumbled, then hissed, then swung open, giving way to a similarly lavish corridor behind it. Again, Mai looked around, then hesitantly stepped inside. She’d only made it a few feet in before the wall slid back into place behind her.
Good Morning, Doctor Fitzgerald. Please—
“Jesus!” Mai cursed, speeding up to something close to a jog, eventually arriving at a nurses’ station. It looked almost identical to the nurses’ stations on the other floors, except that this one was made of marble and was staffed by two of the most stunningly put-together human beings Mai had ever seen.
“Dr. Fitzgerald,” said the blonde with perfect teeth and sapphire blue eyes. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
Mai holstered her pager and held her tongue. She looked around the ward. It was even more decadent than the hallway leading to Mr. Phillips’ office. Golden columns along the walls, Persian rugs lining the floor, a Zen garden complete with a koi-filled pond, and what looked to be an actual Picasso hanging on the wall behind the nurses’ station. “What is this place?”
The other nurse, this one brunette and brown-eyed and also seemingly without flaw, nodded as if this was her cue to speak. “This is the VIP unit,” she said. “For our high-dollar clientele who value a reimagined hospital experience that prioritizes maximum comfort, minimum visibility, and the best quality of care that money can buy.”
“Great.” Mai was exhausted enough she didn’t even bother trying to hide her disdain. “So, what high-dollar paperwork is so urgent that it couldn’t wait until morning?”
“Mr. Clifton, in room three,” said the blonde with that same TV smile. “He’s being discharged and requires a formal discharge medication reconciliation to be completed and signed by an MD before he leaves.”
Mai frowned. “You really couldn’t save that for the day team?”
The brunette calmly shook her head. “Unfortunately, it cannot wait. Mr. Clifton’s ride is expected any moment now, and we can’t allow him to leave until a discharge medication reconciliation is completed and signed by you, the MD.” She pursed her lips into a tight, haughty smile. “Hospital policy.”
“Normally it’s Dr. Coleman who handles these issues,” said the blonde. “Unfortunately, he hasn’t been returning our pages tonight.”
“Yeah.” Mai sighed, checking her phone again. Still nothing from Carter. “I’m having the same issue.”
Mai glared suspiciously at the nurses, then checked her pager.
Fourth request. Please order sleep med for Ms. Whitaker in Rm 3641. She’s still wide awake.
“Shit!” Mai muttered under her breath, slipping the pager into her back pocket so she’d remember to finally order that sleeping med. “Okay, where’s room three? Let’s get this over with.”
Both nurses smiled, nodded, then pointed with open hands down the hallway to their right.
Usually, and especially on night shift, Mai prided herself on being a gentle knocker. A light tap on the door, a gentle “good morning” or “good evening” before entering the sacred space of an afflicted soul whom she’d been charged with healing. After the night she’d been having, though, Mai had no patience left for a rich, demanding VIP. So, instead, she knocked once, pushed open the door, and barged into the room. “Morning, Mr. Clifton,” she said at full volume. “I hear you’ve got some super-important paperwork for me to fill out right away.”
The patient stood with his back to Mai looking out the window, his velvet hospital gown tied loosely around his waist. He turned around, a cocky smirk on his handsome, stubbled face. “I hear the same thing. Glad we’re all on the same page.”
Mai froze in her tracks. “You’re... you’re Calum Clifton.”
He checked his hospital wrist band, then feigned surprise. “I guess I am. Ain’t that something?” He stepped away from the window and approached Mai, giving her the once-over. “Any you’re... much too cute to be a doctor. Can I go there?”
In any other situation, Mai would have told him exactly where he could go, but she still hadn’t quite recovered from the shock of stepping into the hospital room of four-time Oscar winner and worldwide heartthrob Calum Clifton.
Mai was far from a connoisseur of popular culture. In fact, at that point in her life, she would have been hard-pressed to rattle off more than five non-medical celebrities from the top of her head. But Calum Clifton was a universal name, and it just so happened that his chiseled jawline had once occupied the wall-space above her bed for most of her pre-undergrad years.
“Now how about that paperwork?”
“Right.” Mai shook herself back into focus and logged onto the computer in the corner of the room. “So, you’re being discharged tonight?”
“Sure am,” Clifton said, bending down to touch his toes. “Well, it’s really more of a transfer. My agent found me a bed over at Methodist across town.”
His chart came to life on the monitor. Mai clicked through it. There really wasn’t much there. “What are you in for?”
Clifton reached his hands to the ceiling and arched his back. “Just my usual infusions.”
Mai scanned through his medication list: Concentrated Gotu Kola Leaf Extract, Valerian Root, Tincture of Queensfoil, about a dozen different vitamin concoctions, and something called Dr. Timberson’s Holy Anti-Acne Oil. “What exactly are these infusions for?”
“Multiple things, really.” He shrugged, then transitioned into warrior-two pose. “My dysfunctional heart chakra, mostly. That and this frayed neural connection between my brain and kidneys, a slightly leaky immune system, and I got a rash on my ass cheek that won’t go away.”
“All of this for that?” Mai scrolled through the meds again and looked around the swanky room that was at least twice the size of the space most truly sick patients were left to share with other truly sick patients downstairs.
Clifton shrugged. “Doctor’s orders.”
Again, Mai held her tongue. She clicked through the first few infusions, verifying doses and frequency, but then just signed off on all the rest together after realizing she neither knew nor cared what the standard dose of Dr. Timberson’s Holy Anti-Acne Oil was supposed to be. “All done,” she said, signing out of the computer.
“That was quick.” Clifton smirked as he leaned further into his warrior-two. “I like you.”
Mai ignored the flutter in her chest. “Why are you transferring to another hospital anyway? Is the service here not good enough for you?”
If Clifton picked up on the bite in Mai’s tone, he didn’t let on. His arms reached skyward as he transitioned into warrior-one pose. “The service here is great. Food is good. Bed is soft. And those nurses, Yessica and Svetlana? Best in the business.” He flashed Mai another wink. “I still got three days of infusions to go, but my agent is telling me I shouldn’t stay here any longer. He’s on his way to pick me up now.”
“Dunno.” He shrugged. “I don’t ask questions. My agent’s never led me astray before. I mean, four Oscars, am I right?”
“You ever heard of Starlight Escapades?”
Mai shook her head.
“Of course, you haven’t. It’s a shitty movie. I was supposed to be in it. Read the script and loved it. Dragons, lasers, a kissing scene with Monica Janceszok. Awesome, right? I signed the contract without even reading it. Five days into shooting, my agent realized that shit was a dumpster fire. He pulled some strings and got me outta there before my career went up in flames with the rest of them.” He sighed and shook his head. “Poor Monica hasn’t been the same since.” He looked at Mai and shrugged. “So, yeah. My agent tells me to jump, I jump. He tells me to get the hell out of this hospital ASAP, I get the hell out of here ASAP.” He took a deep breath and struck a tree pose. “First rule of show biz, darling. Don’t ask questions. Don’t try to understand. Just stay quiet and go with the flow.”
Mai flinched at the sound of the word.
She held her breath.
Slowly, she reached into her back pocket and grabbed her pager, waiting for the blaring screech she knew was coming.
“Everything okay, darl—”
“Shhhh!” Mai held out her finger.
They stood silent. Frozen. Waiting.
Finally, after another minute or so, Mai let down her guard and looked at the pager. “Shit.”
Clifton shook his head as Mai hurried back to the computer. “Weird business, this doctoring thing.”
Mai was pulling up the chart for Ms. Whitaker in room 3641 when she heard the helicopter. It wasn’t abnormal to hear helicopters coming and going, usually with some high-level trauma for the surgical team. But usually they landed at the other side of the hospital near the ER.
“Well, honey, I believe that’s my ride,” Clifton said, raising his voice over the growing thwub-thwub-thwub of the chopper. He snapped out of his tree pose and pulled the velvet hospital gown over his head. “Now, where did I put my clothes?”
Mai watched, dumbfounded, as her childhood celebrity crush paced the room in the buff, her eyes fixated on the large maculopapular rash on his chiseled right ass cheek. “Ah, here we are.” He pulled a patent leather Louis Vuitton duffel from underneath the bed. “We good here?”
Mai, still dumbfounded, nodded. She tried to look away as he changed into his own clothes, but Ms. Whitaker’s chart wasn’t nearly enough to hold her attention.
There was a knock at the window. Clifton slid it open, revealing a helmeted man in a bright white jump suit dangling from a cable.
“You have a good one now, okay?” Clifton shouted. He stepped back from the window, then got a running start and leapt into the night.
Mai hurried over to the window and watched as Calum Clifton—four-time Oscar winner and object of her peri-pubertal obsession—faded into the Los Angeles night dangling from a helicopter, leaving her there, in a hidden VIP room on the top floor of the hospital, alone yet again.
“What in the actual hell?” she muttered to herself.
And then it happened.
CODE BLUE, ROOM 6462 BED B. I REPEAT, CODE BLUE, ROOM 6462 BED B.
Mai knew who it was before she reached the room. Her only hope was that it wasn’t a true Code Blue, that maybe he’d just passed out or gotten agitated again and someone pressed the wrong button. But when she arrived on scene and saw the red-headed nurse performing chest compressions on Mr. DeLuca, her own heart nearly stopped too.
“What happened?” Mai said, that same dithering tremor in her voice.
“I don’t know,” said the burley security guard, who looked even more terrified than Mai felt. “He was fine. He woke up and was yelling about a fire again, then he had a visitor and quieted down. Then the next time I checked on him he was…” He shook his head. He looked like he was about to vomit.
Mai felt like she was about to vomit, but she sprung into action anyway. “Okay, what’s been done so far? What do we have for access?”
“Three and a half minutes of CPR,” said the baby-faced nurse on the computer in the corner. “He’s got a single 20-gauge in his right AC.”
“Great. Let’s do a rhythm check.” Mai assumed her position at the foot of the bed and glared at the monitor. “Looks like coarse v-fib. We’re going to shock. Charge to 200 joules.”
Mai scanned Eusebio’s lifeless body as the red-headed nurse put everything she had into his bare chest. She racked her brain for an explanation. Anything she might have missed. An infarction? A pulmonary embolism? An overdose? An arrhythmia?
The balding nurse at the monitor signalled to Mai. “Ready, doctor.”
“Everyone, clear,” Mai said with force. “Shock.”
Eusebio’s body jolted in bed as the electricity flowed through his chest.
“You,” she pointed to the balding nurse. “Take over chest compressions. You,” she pointed to the red-headed nurse. “Give 1 mg of epinephrine and take over the monitor.”
Mai clenched her jaw. She watched as the nurse injected the medication into Eusebio’s arm and tried to think about what else could have caused his heart to stop. She tried to remember all the treatments and algorithms she’d spent so many hours memorizing. She ran through all the medications she would try next if the epinephrine didn’t do the trick.
And then she smelled the smoke. It was faint. At first, Mai wasn’t sure if her mind was just playing tricks on her again. But by the time they were ready for the next rhythm check, she was convinced it was real.
“Two minutes, doctor,” said the baby-faced nurse.
Mai glared at the monitor. It was still a jumbled mess. She cursed under her breath. “Let’s shock again. 200 joules.”
Mai took a deep breath. “Does anyone smell that?”
“Charged, doctor. Smell what?”
“Clear!” Mai ordered. Then, once everyone was clear: “Shock.”
Again, Eusebio’s body briefly came to life, then collapsed again into the same inanimate heap.
“Resume chest compressions.” Mai pointed at the balding nurse. “Smoke,” she said to the rest of the room. “Does no one else smell smoke?”
“We just shocked him twice. He’s got a hairy chest,” said the red-headed nurse. “It’s probably just singed hair.”
Mai took a deep breath again. The smell was even stronger, and it definitely wasn’t burnt hair. It smelled like... fire.
“Keep compressing,” she said, then moved from the foot of the bed to the corner of the room where the nauseated security guard was standing beneath the air vent. “Lift me up.”
The security guard frowned.
“Up there.” She nodded at the vent. “Lift me up.”
He looked around the room uneasily, then hitched up his pant legs, squatted down, and grasped Mai by the waist.
“Higher,” she said.
The security guard strained. “That’s as high as I can go!”
Mai stretched her neck as far as she could, then took a deep breath through her nose and immediately started coughing. “Let me down!”
The security guard lowered her to the ground as she continued to hack.
“There’s a fire!” she gasped as soon as her lungs were clear.
The security guard cocked his head.
“You said he had a visitor?”
“What did he look like?”
The security guard shrugged. “He was a man. Maybe in his forties. Maybe in his sixties. Hair…”
“It’s been two minutes, doctor.”
“Okay, let’s do another rhythm check.” Mai hurried back over to the foot of the bed. She glared at the monitor again. This time it looked different. Regular. Organized. A sharp crisp spike nearly every second. “Do we have a pulse?”
Mai checked her own at the base of her wrist as she waited.
The red-headed nurse turned to her and smiled. “We have a pulse, doctor.”
Mai watched, still in a state of disbelief as the critical care team wheeled Mr. De Luca down the hall in the direction of the ICU, the scent of smoke now stronger than ever.
She turned to the red-headed nurse. “You don’t smell that?”
“The only thing I smell is confidence.” She smiled and patted Mai on the shoulder. “You ran that Code all on your own, not even a senior resident to help you out.”
“Yeah,” Mai muttered. But rather than taking a moment to bask in the glory of her first successful Code Blue, or to appreciate how much she’d grown as a doctor, or to text Carter and update him on all the shit that he’d missed, she grabbed a surgical mask and ran down the hallway toward the stairs.
Mai burst out of the stairwell into the basement and immediately her worst fear was confirmed. The entire corridor was filled with smoke. She put on her mask and dropped to her hands and knees. If no one else was going to help her, she’d figure it out herself. She had to know where the smoke was coming from.
The porcelain tile was unforgiving against her knees. Even so, she crawled as quickly as she could. Past the microbiology lab, past the laundry office, past all the stuffed laundry carts. She stopped near the broken glass to catch her breath, then coughed into the crook of her arm and started up again down the long, dark hallway leading to the cashier.
The light was still on. It was muted through the dense screen of smoke, but it was still there. She crawled faster. Past Nutritional Services, past the Security office, past Shipping & Receiving, her knees and lungs pleading for another break. Mai pressed on nonetheless.
And eventually—finally—she made it to the end of the hallway. She reached up to grab one of the bronze bars lining the window, then yelped into her mask. It was scalding. She took a deep breath and stood up, shaking her hand in pain. But when she looked through the window, what she saw was enough to make her forget about her hand. The office was filled with smoke, but the plump old woman with coke-bottle glasses was still there, hunched over her adding machine, meticulously crunching numbers, oblivious to the apocalyptic scene surrounding her.
“What are you doing here?” Mai shouted.
The old lady slowly turned around in her chair. “Ready to check out?”
“There’s a fire!” Mai yelled. “You need to get out of here!”
The old lady shook her head. “This is a 24/7 business, dear. Rain or shine.”
“I’m not talking about rain. I’m talking about fire! We need to call for help! We need to get out of here!”
But the old lady was already back to work on her adding machine.
Mai fought the urge to scream again. She dropped to her hands and knees and started crawling toward the door. The smoke was even thicker now. She couldn’t see a thing. Mai panted through her mask, sweat dripping into her eyes as she picked up her pace, then ran smack into the door.
She slowly picked herself up off the floor. Her head was ringing, her teeth still shaking in her mouth. Mai turned her head, walking her fingers along her cervical spine to make sure everything was still intact. It all seemed to be okay. The door, though... she didn’t remember it being so close.
Mai stood back and scanned it over. It looked different, too. It was heavier. Sturdier. It looked like the door to a bank vault. But there was still smoke pouring out from underneath it, and she could still hear voices shouting in the distance behind it.
“Hello?” Mai yelled. “Can anyone hear me?” She grabbed her hospital ID and looked for a badge reader, but there was none. Just another dismantled fire alarm hanging from the wall. She beat on the door with her fist, but it was scalding too. Mai cursed into her mask once more. “Hello?” she yelled again, kicking at the door. But it was no use.
She ran back to the cashier, not even bothering to crawl. “I need to use your phone.”
Without even looking up from her work, the plump old lady picked up the receiver of her ancient rotary phone and slowly passed it through the bars of the window.
“Dial 911. Or the operator. Anyone!”
The old lady extended a round finger and slowly spun the 0.
We’re sorry, your call cannot be completed—
Mai cursed and dropped the receiver. She took out her own phone, but there was still no service.
And that’s when she lost it. The night, after everything she’d managed to overcome, had finally broken her. Mai slumped down against the wall, tears forming in her sleepless eyes. It was just too much. She’d spent her entire life up to that point training to solve problems. That was the whole point of medicine—to diagnose what was wrong and extinguish it before it caused any meaningful damage. But this problem, whatever it was... it was too much for her, a mere intern, to handle.
Mai sighed, trying as best she could to come to terms with her failure.
“What now?” she shouted at the ceiling.
Hey Mai. Day team is here to take over. Where are you?
She checked her watch. It was 6:39 A.M.
That was it. Her night was over.
She looked down the hallway into the swirling, smoky gloom. There was a time not so long before, when she’d raised her right hand and sworn the Hippocratic Oath, that Mai’s burning sense of duty would have compelled her to stay down there in the basement, to give it everything she had, to fight it out to the end. But after the last six months, and after that night in particular, her blazing flame was little more than a flicker.
Mai stood up. She took a deep, filtered breath through her mask, then holstered her pager and made her way back toward the stairs.
Mai sat dazed at the conference room computer, her head still aching as she read through all the updates from the night while the day team took notes.
“Mr. Lam, nothing. Mr. Parker got some laxatives. Ms. Silva, nothing. Ms. Kalendra got a couple extra breathing treatments. And Ms. Whitaker... shit!”
Mai opened up Ms. Whitaker’s chart and finally ordered her something for sleep. She sighed. “Not that it matters anymore.”
The day team senior resident shrugged. “That’s all?”
Mai glanced over her notes one more time. “That’s all.”
“Nice. Quiet night, then.”
She didn’t even bother fighting it. “Yeah, mostly.”
The day team stood up, all of them so fresh and put-together, which only made Mai feel even more defeated.
“Oh, one more thing.”
The day team froze at the door.
Mai froze too. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. Or what she should say. She wasn’t really sure of anything at all anymore. “Take care of each other out there.”
The day team looked at one another, then back at Mai. The senior resident smiled. “Get some sleep, Mai.”
Mai felt about a hundred pounds lighter as she walked out of the hospital, backpack on and pager off. One more shift in the books, one more to go until vacation. Passing through the lobby, she was sure she could still smell smoke. But no one else seemed to notice. Or, if they did, they didn’t seem to care. So she didn’t either.
Outside, the air was crisp. Fresh. A welcomed change from her last twelve hours cooped up inside the hospital. She felt dizzy as she walked to the parking garage. Maybe from the fatigue. Maybe from the smoke. Probably a little of both. She fought the urge to sit down in the elevator as it carried her to the roof level where her car was waiting for her.
“One more shift,” she told herself as she stepped off the elevator.
She tossed her backpack into the passenger seat of her car, then turned around to look at the hospital one more time. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It looked the same as it always did. Even so, Mai couldn’t help but wonder if it would still be standing when she came back for her next shift in ten hours.
She let out a monstrous yawn. Really, it wasn’t up to her.
She shook her head, then got in her car and drove home.