The Sleeping Word
The light filtering through the tall windows fell on the floor just short of the man kneeling on the bare, cold stone. The great clock above and behind him lurched ahead, a deep click sounding from it as the outer rim advanced the minute. He pulled his long coat off his deep-red robes, gathered it into a pillow, laid over, and fell asleep.
“No pulse,” Jack said after a moment’s feel of the patient’s wrist.
“No breaths,” I responded. “Move on.” I took a black tag from the triage bag and tied it to the man’s wrist. That was the fourth, the fourth out of twelve and those twelve only a dozen out of what seemed to be a hundred. A voice behind us kept calling, “If you’re not injured, walk to the tree line. If you are injured, but can walk, please go towards the blue ambulances in the field. If you’re not injured…” I eventually tuned out the voice as I counted the respirations of an unconscious woman. “Red tag, 45 breaths per minute, absent radial pulse.” As my partner tagged her, I placed a quick bandage on the visible wound. We were going too slowly. We came to the next man: breaths present, slow and even, a broken leg, and unconscious. My partner pulled out the yellow tag, but I told him to tag the patient red: we had no way of know what other problems there might be. We moved on. I had no clue what had happened here, I barely remembered arriving. I didn’t really need to know, honestly, I just needed to make sure we got to as many people as possible. The scene was a mess, that was sure, but we were slowly imposing order as teams came behind us to do more detailed assessment, more personal treatment, perhaps call stretchers for those who’d been marked with urgent tags. As I tagged a child yellow and left him in the care of his mother I sent up a prayer that the femur fracture in my first few contacts would be one of the first to go.
We eventually reached the far end of the scene, and I stopped Jack, my partner, so we could both breathe. Some remote part of my brain clicked and I finally processed the sight before me. I had thought that there was a line of overturned 18-wheelers lying across the highway, but I was wrong. There was a train in the highway. The bridge above the road must have collapsed, sending the back cars of the train down into the traffic. That had caused the worst injuries. Unprepared or distracted drivers had done the rest. I looked up at the sky, and squinted at a red dot that seemed to be hanging above the scene. It was hot, the blazing sun searing me right through my uniform.
“Let’s get back to the ambulances,” Jack nudged me. I looked at him, finally feeling the sweat dripping off my nose. I nodded and we moved off, rechecking the patients we’d seen as we went, handing some of the supplies we carried to bystanders we could tell had been trained and asking them to help take care of the minor injuries in the field.
“How long have you been on ■■■■■?” the captain asked me as we approached the fire trucks that were acting as our makeshift command center.
I answered honestly, “I’m not sure.”
“You look beat, and you aren’t going to do us any good if you collapse and become another patient.”
“I’m fine,” I responded, only to be cut off by Jack.
“You’ve been on ■■■■■ longer than I have, and I’m finishing up two twelve-hours.”
The captain nodded. “Hop on Rescue 6, they’re headed back to load up on supplies to treat on-scene patients with. Get rest.
“Yes, sir.” I glared at Jack, but moved off to the ambulance, who seemed to be waiting on me. Before I closed the back doors I looked back into the sky. The red dot still hung there, but a little lower in the sky.
The ambulance rolled off, and I strapped myself in to the chair at the head of the empty space where the stretcher had been. Instead there were several slightly deflated equipment bags. No doubt they planned to stuff them full and return. As the driver pulled out onto the highway, I heard the wail of the sirens and put a hand on the back of the chair to steady myself. Going into the profession I hadn’t thought about it, but ambulance rides could get rough on top of the truck chassis they build the boxes on.
It was a half-hour ride back to the station, a pretty monotonous half-hour for me as the guy in back. We backed into the station, and I moved out of the way as the back-up ambulance crew grabbed the bags at my feet and ran off to fill them. I was beginning to feel it now, the tiredness my captain had sent me home over. I stood off to the side as the bags vanished inside, and slowly came trotting back out on the shoulders of medics to be thrown into the back of the ambulance, which roared off down the road with lights blazing and sirens screaming.
Two things happened as I sat down into a chair by the lockers: first, the speakers placed near the ceiling of the ambulance bay sounded a loud, high-pitched tone calling for the attention of any on-duty medic; second, as the voice that followed the tone began to tell us where the ambulance was needed and what it was needed for, one of the on-duty medics tripped over some dust on the floor and fell. He curled into a ball on the concrete clutching his ankle. A few minutes of assistance from his partner led to the ankle being deemed twisted but fine, and the poor klutz was taken back into the bunk area to lie down.
“I’ll take his place,” I said to his partner. “Go get the location and details.”
The other medic nodded, and I followed him out to the bay, sliding into the passenger seat as he retrieved the information from dispatch.
“Broken leg at the southern beach,” he explained as we pulled out of the bay. “Should be quick and easy.”
“Yeah, easy,” I yawned, glancing out the window as we came to the road. “Clear right.” My new partner nodded, flipped the switches for lights and sirens, and we were off. The road flew by as we got onto the highway, and I looked up into the sky. The red dot was there still, lower and slowly speeding up its descent to the ground.
“We’re here,” my partner announced. He pointed across the beach. “That seems to be our scene.”
I looked over, saw the knot of people, and clambered out of the truck. “The stretcher won’t like rolling over that. We’ll use the scoop until we get the patient to firm ground.” We grabbed the necessary equipment out of the truck, and began walking out to the group of people standing around. As we moved onto the sand, I looked back into the sky. The red speck was falling faster. It was low enough that I could make it out. It looked like a person. I stopped.
“Hey, what is it?” My partner asked me. He looked out to the sky. “Is there something out there?”
I didn’t respond. I watched as the red figure plummeted down and down until it neared the water. A wind blew and I blinked at some sand, and then the figure vanished beneath the waves. No splash, only a single ripple that left a glassy surface behind. It grew as it spread outwards, gaining in height and speed. It reached the shore, ten feet tall and moving faster than I knew I could run, sweeping over men, women, and children all oblivious to the wall of water coming to destroy us.
“Dude, is there something, wrong?” As soon as the words left his lips, my partner and I were swept away in the flood. The world went blue. I looked around, and saw nothing, no one. I felt weightless, and began to drift in the current of the world-ending tide.
The man in red robes leapt from the ground, breathing hard. His voice felt raw. He must have screamed. Cradling his head with one hand, he knelt to retrieve his jacket. The sky outside was dark now, and the clock told him that it would likely be dawn soon.
He touched his forehead and bowed to the empty room. “God, I hate the falling dreams.”