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07 April 2014
Angel of Mercy
The receptionist had no face to speak of, merely a blank, white void with a rather crass-looking speaker grill where a mouth would be. The head bobbed a little as prerecorded segments of speech were spliced and rearranged in real-time to answer simple questions or give directions. The subtle moves were made less so by the sausage curls of the stark, white wig swaying with each tinny syllable. The groomed loudspeaker chimed its canned answers from behind the reception desk, effectively obscuring the horrifically serpentine cluster of fiber optic cables and pneumatic hoses pouring out from the skirt of the white uniform. Its dress form of a body was completely motionless apart from its head and six furiously busy arms. One pair was typing away at a teletype machine, answering a call from a deaf patient. Another were shuffling and filing small computer punch cards whose exact advantage or even purpose was likely beyond the grasp of even the most tenured of staff. The fifth was running a finger over a stack of forms in a labyrinthine pattern, a magnetic sensor in the tip following the metallic ink lines of previous patients' handwriting. The last, after handing off a clipboard to a patient, went back to helping the literate lefty by moving read forms into an outbox. Like the face, the hair, and the uniform, the arms were clad in white, seamlessly ending in fine, silk gloves stretched over the long, spindly, spring-loaded fingers. The only item of color was the red cross in the dead center of the cap which was undoubtedly bolted to the head to keep the wig in place.
Susan imagined a technician standing behind the android, ratcheting the bolt loose to swap out the sausages for a swing bob or possibly dreadlocks festooned with pearly beads. She was so lost in her little daydream, looking back and forth between the animatronic octopus and the clipboard it had given her, that she'd completely tuned out what it was saying. The concussion she was in for wasn't helping, but she knew all she had to do was say "Repeat that" at any time. She also knew there was no one behind her, so she could probably say "Repeat that" as many times as she needed. What she didn't know was how many times she had already said "Repeat that." Her daze was broken when, while clumsily signing her name at the bottom of the form, a messy red drop beat her to the punch in dotting the "i" in her last name. She knew it was her own blood from the gash between her eyes; she'd felt it creep down her nose, welling up at the tip while ticking boxes on the triage form. What she hadn't realized was how much further it had crept beyond merely her nose. Looking down revealed a hand-sized red teardrop on her shirt. It wasn't this bad in the car ride over, she thought. Panic set in as she felt a presence behind her, and tried to form the words she'd lost count of saying.
"Room 106. To your right. Third door on the right." The male voice from behind Susan was distinctly non-mechanical, but almost as cold apart from the tinge of impatience. She awkwardly spun round to apologize, nearly saying sorry to an ID card on a lanyard dangling in front of a blurry splash of pastel pink. Looking up, she found she could no longer blink both her eyes at once, or very quickly, so clearing up her vision to get a better look at the man was a tedious ordeal. All she could really work out at first was that the pink of his scrubs didn't go very well with his olive skin. He leaned forward, which helped a little bit. "My God, that's really bad. I couldn't tell from down the hall. I thought you were just having fun." The impatience was gone, taking the coldness with it. He turned to his left to grab something off the cart he'd been pushing.
"I fell off a horse." She winced as she said it, realizing he hadn't even asked a question, let alone about what happened. He gave her a puzzled look over his shoulder, "Why would you do such a thing?" She tried to roll her eyes, but got dizzy in the process, and shut her eyes while trying to keep her balance and formulate a retort. "Look," she managed, trying in vain to point, "I've just been lectured by an answering machine with a stupid haircut, I don't need this from you." How much of this suddenly-difficult thought ended up in spoken words was just beyond Susan's grasp. Fortunately, it turned out to be enough.
"I apologize." he said, followed by a quick battery of questions, like if she was nauseous or felt chills or was short of breath, among others that all blurred together. She lazily swung her head from side-to-side in response to all of the above, even the one about feeling dizzy, which she was as shaking her head with her eyes still closed threw her balance completely off. A hand firmly grasped her arm, making her tense up with a start, dropping the clipboard. She opened her eyes to see him coming at her with a wad of gauze. She reflexively made fists, ready to reach up and push him away. When he gently pressed the gauze against the gash, she felt relief, and a bit of guilt over how defensive she was being.
"You need to apply pressure." He pushed a little harder on the wad of gauze with each word. She reached up, felt about for the compress, and slid her fingers under his. He let go, kneeling down to pick up the clipboard. She looked down, spotting the edge of a tattoo at the base of his neck. Some kind of star, she thought. He stood up, giving the clipboard a once-over before looking back to her. "Can you walk?" He asked. She didn't answer. "I'll walk you to your room."
"Thank you..." her eyes finally focused enough for her to read the ID, "Oliver." She found herself too easily amused at "Oliver with the olive skin." She was bad with names, always making up quick little mnemonics. So rarely did any of them fall into place this easily.
When they got to the room, Oliver tossed the clipboard onto the counter before guiding Susan onto the exam table and helping her lie down. He pinched her wrist between his thumb and forefinger, asking her to tell him what happened without looking up from his watch. She told him of how she and her friend were out riding when the cinch of her saddle snapped. She managed to roll as she fell, but the saddle fell the rest of the way with her, one of the stirrups hitting her right between the eyes.
"It wasn't bleeding like this in the car," she went on, "so I told my friend to just drop me off and come inside when he found a parking space." Oliver rolled up her sleeve and pressed a small handheld device against her forearm. There was a sudden warming sensation that ran up her wrist to her elbow, followed by three beeps. He pulled the device away, subtly mouthing whatever he was reading off of it, then glancing over at the clipboard on the counter.
"Well, Susan, the good news is it looks worse than it is. You may get a scar, but you won't need stitches. You haven't lost that much blood. A touch anemic, obviously, but it's nothing serious. I can just wheel in the Hemvac, clean up and bandage that gash while it's working--"
"The what?" she interrupted.
"It's for transfusions. Don't worry, the name is the scariest part. You don't have any heart conditions, and you're not on any medications, so it should only take about fifteen minutes. Won't even need to call in an RN."
"Oh, only a one nurse town?" She joked, propping herself up on one elbow.
"I'm not a nurse. I'm an orderly." He saw her smile melt to a nervous quiver. He leaned in, assuring, "It means you're fine." He started to leave. "I'll have the doctor paged when I pass the reception desk. He'll give you your discharge instructions when we're all done." He got to the door, stopped, and turned back to her. "What's your friend's name?"
"Simon." She blurted amid trying to process his mile-a-minute prognosis.
"I'll see if he's in the waiting room yet, let him know you're all right."
"Thank you, Oliver."
"It's why I'm here," he smiled, closing the door behind him.
Susan laid back down, staring up at the ceiling in silence. She pulled the gauze away from between her eyes and looked at the stain.
It looked like a star.
This story was written in a weekend as a warm-up exercise for a 48-hour story telling contest happening later in the week.