It was 1:03am.
A hospital stood at the intersection of two well-known streets; its colorful exterior a vibrant display of positivity against the surrounding gray neighborhood and dark night. Inside, Sally Marcone – a pediatric nurse fresh out of a prominent Midwest school – sat at a computer on the 8th floor. Her computer screen the only nearby source of light in the darkness of the night shift.
The pediatric oncology floor wasn’t for everyone. Most people aren’t ready to see a room with a child hooked up to tubes and machines with blinking lights, their bodies just a sick as the gray walls around them.
Her only patient was six-year-old Tobias Kearny. The Stage Four Lymphoma was deep in his bone marrow. The tests came back earlier.
Sally stood from her computer and walked to Toby’s room, taking in the white walls and purple door frames of the empty rooms off the corridor. She was tired of typing in the vital signs from the day. Each number worse than the one before.
She crept to Toby’s door and stopped, listening through the crack. She heard a rustling of furniture fabric and blankets.
Was Toby awake again? She thought.
She eased the door open. The light pouring into the room from the corridor revealed Toby asleep under the covers. It was saddening to see a child with no one else there – their parents still working – trying to pay for their child’s care.
Sally had a son once. Toby reminded her of him. She’d had a husband, too. Her son’s passing from cancer inspired her desire to be here, but it also inspired her husband to leave. She reminded herself of it daily. She was here to prevent others from suffering like she did.
When she volunteered for the transfer, she knew what to expect. Expect being the key word. To see it and live it were entirely different. Sally hadn’t been ready for the emotional toll it would take to see someone so young dying from something unseen. A cancerous molecule hideous in nature and makeup. Something so small and at the same time, so terrible.
Sally moved to the next room. She flipped on the light switch, closing her eyes for a moment as they adjusted. She rubbed them as a wave of exhaustion came over her.
The room was bare except for a bed on wheels surrounded by machines. One of the florescent bulbs flickered in the ceiling, giving the empty room an unsettling feeling.
Then she felt something brush against her back. It felt like a wind. A breeze made by someone walking by too fast.
She turned, but she was alone.
A chill ran up her spine.
She breathed, calming herself. She thought about calling someone. The maintenance worker perhaps, just to hear the familiar sounds of a person walking down the hallway.
She stepped back into the corridor. The shelving units and file cabinets lining the walls suddenly became sinister entities watching her.
She heard rustling again in Toby’s room. Toby wasn’t a great sleeper. As she approached Toby’s half-open door, the rustling stopped.
She looked into the dark, seeing Toby’s shape again beneath the covers. He hadn’t moved.
Something else was disturbing her. The darkness of the room seemed to vary. Shadows hanging in places where they shouldn’t.
She closed the door, hoping the unsettling feeling in her gut would disappear.
She listened again – ear pressing against the door – fighting the temptation to wake him; to ask Toby if everything was okay.
After a few moments, she walked back to the nurse station desk.
“Why do I do this to myself?” she whispered.
From each dark corner of the corridor, she felt eyes on her. She grunted under her breath, then walked to the nearest light switch and turned all the lights on.
She tried to distract herself, thinking about the paperwork from the day she still needed to do.
She heard Toby’s door open. She turned to see him stumble out of the room, his gait sleepy and weak. His feet dragged on the floor as he pulled his chemical cocktail along behind him, the wheels turning awkwardly on the floor and squeaking with agony.
“Miss Nurse?” he whimpered.
Sally smiled wide at him, happy to be able to talk with him.
“Hi, Toby,” she said. “How are you?” She put her hands on his shoulders and rubbed them gently, imagining her hands working the cancer out of him. She wished she had magical powers to suck out the disease.
“There’s a man whispering to me in my room,” Toby said.
“What?” Her heart skipped a beat, fear gripping it like a fist. She took a deep breath, hoping Toby hadn’t seen the fear on her face.
She didn’t know how to respond. Toby was so small and fragile standing there – his arms holding his blanket around his shoulders – she didn’t want to alarm him.
She knew there was no one else in that room besides Toby. Maybe the chemo cocktail was starting to have an effect on him; bad enough that he was hearing things.
What Toby was saying was frightening, but she thought it would be best to play along.
“Oh, sweetie,” she said. “Let’s get you back to bed and I’ll check.”
As she guided him back to his room, she realized how sickly he was. His skin was pale with hues of green. His clothes hung off his shoulders like towels on a drying rack.
“What was this man saying to you?” she asked, afraid of the potential answer.
“He wanted me to walk with him,” Toby said.
“Walk with him where?”
They entered Toby’s room and Sally flipped the light switch.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“Do you want to get back into bed?”
“Yes. I’m tired.”
She helped him into his bed and rolled his incubation machine next to the bed frame. Pulling the covers over him, she felt something brush her foot.
She looked down, realizing it was the edge of the sheet draping over the side of the bed.
I need to calm down, she told herself.
“All set?” she said, looking back at Toby. His eyes were already closed.
“What if he asks me to go walking again?” Toby whispered through the oncoming sleep.
She shuddered – trying to think of a response – but before she could answer, Toby was asleep. His breathing was heavy and labored; each inhalation a fight against the molecular war within his body.
What if he asks me to go walking again?
His last question haunted her to the bones.
Silence hung in the room like fog, threatening to suffocate her.
She looked around the room, making sure nothing was out of place. Then she noticed the bathroom door on the opposite side.
It was closed. And she didn’t remember closing it.
Before her mind could conjure an image of some freakish ghoul behind the bathroom door, she stepped around the bed and grabbed the handle, pulling it open.
A silent darkness waited behind it like the gaping mouth of a monster, aching for her to enter and swallow her whole.
She sighed. Took a breath. Exhaled.
She reached slowly inside the door frame, feeling for the light switch. She leaned back, not wanting any more of her body to enter the dark bathroom than necessary until she could find the light.
Her fingers felt the switch and flipped it. She stepped into the small bathroom, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
She froze. Invisible spider legs walked up her back with a sudden chill.
She turned to look at Toby.
He was asleep, but the blackness under the bed seemed to grow darker.
The blackness was watching her.
Time seemed to slow. All the sounds in the room grew as loud as a jet engine: the air blowing through the ceiling diffusers and the humming florescent lights.
It was too low; too deep for a child’s cough.
She took a step towards the door, then a tendril of blackness reached out from under the bed and stretched towards her. She fell back onto the floor.
The bathroom door slammed shut.
“Walk…” something outside the room said. The voice was chunky and deep.
“Toby!” she yelled, scrambling up from the bathroom floor.
She pushed through the jackhammer of fear pounding in her chest and burst back into the room.
Toby’s bed was empty. The door into the corridor wide open.
Her heart ripped in two.
Once outside the room, she turned to see Toby nearing the end of the corridor, holding hands with someone.
No, not someone. Its gait was too awkward and lopsided.
“Toby!” She screamed, sprinting after him with all her might.
Toby and the thing disappeared around a corner at the end of the hallway.
“Toby! Stop! Stop!”
She heard the elevator ding.
Bounding around the corner, she caught a glimpse of the thing guiding Toby over the threshold of the elevator doors.
Sally missed a step and fell, sliding across the floor.
“No!” She was crying, realizing she was going to lose Toby. Just like her son.
The chime of the elevator dinged and the doors started to close. Toby stood in the middle of them next to a hideous, dark mass holding his hand just out of sight. The skin seemed to move, churning like liquid.
She was too slow to her feet. Emotions rushed through her like a hurricane. She’d failed again, only able to watch the creature taking Toby away from her.
But Toby wasn’t afraid.
“Toby! Come out!”
“It’s okay, Miss Nurse,” he said.
She was almost to the door.
“No! Stop! How is this okay?!”
“Because I’m going up!”
Then the doors closed and the little white UP arrow went out.
And Toby was gone.