Frontliner

Submitted into Contest #53 in response to: Write a story about another day in a heatwave. ... view prompt

9 comments

General

The fluorescent rays contorted as they fell off the glaring sun. The sweltering heat, the moist humidity, and the fact that half a dozen men were in the infirmary with heat stroke made Admiral Miles Hallaway tense.


Where he had skin, he had sweat. His head felt like it was bulging, the veins slithering his arms were thick and swelled, and all over him, there was a dull burning, as if molten lead had replaced blood. The heatwave was inexplicably hot. So hot that sitting under a shaded tree did nothing.


And it was even worse, during the COVID-19 pandemic. With a surgical mask, his lips were sweating, which was the most uncomfortable and disgusting thing ever, especially with 110°+ weather in Kosovo. The mask made him feel light-headed, and with the thick air, every breath was a violent strain.


Miles was an army veteran, and his years in service gave him some level of stoicism. He faced bullet wounds, watched his own men blown into pieces, and almost fell into the hands of terrorists more than once. But nothing could compare to the heartache the pandemic brought him. He’d watch the news at his cantonment, and seeing innocent people dying, with their increasing numbers, always made him walk outside to cool down. What stabbed him the most was that there was nothing he could do about it.


Miles was a man of action. His entire life was action. He was open-mindedly aware of the problems in the world and was actively participating and helping the world. He saw the positive impact he had on society as a veteran, which was his favorite part about the profession.


The main reason he was in the army wasn’t that he had family in the military field, even though his father was a major who served during the Vietnam War, and his grandfather a lieutenant during World War II. The line of army men in his family traced back to the Revolutionary War. He wasn’t a soldier for the veteran benefits, though he appreciated the aid, or even to serve his country, though he was a proud, patriotic American. It wasn't even for the thrill of danger, even if he loved the rush of adrenaline when he was fighting.


The main reason was to see the world, not as a beguiling joyride, but what it really was, a broken place where people get hurt as a result of other people’s bad decisions. And he wanted to be a part of the change. And for the 15 years he was in the military, he was.


But now… Now he wasn’t. He knew he wasn’t. People were getting coronavirus and there was nothing he or his fellow soldiers could do about it. Of course, back in March, General Lockewitz assured them that even though procedure was going to be different because of the inevitability of the pandemic, they still had to give their duty their best, and that now those duties broadened to “reassurance, security and public order, logistics, and medical support,”


It wasn’t the same, he thought angrily. People getting hurt pained him. So much he’d take the pain for them. Miles fingered the scar tissue around the bullet wound at his waist. Thirteen years ago, during the Iraq War, Frank Wilson, a fellow admiral and his best friend, was flat on his back, getting showered with bullets by terrorists. In a delirious attempt to keep him safe, Miles slammed himself atop him, facing the brunt of the attack. By a miraculous stroke of luck, neither of them were severely injured, besides a bullet graze that barely missed Miles' stomach.


Despite the agonizing pain in his entire torso, doses of morphine and weeks of bedrest, he found himself more relieved than regretful. A tiny part of him was elated that he did it, even though Frank was furious.


It wasn’t the adventure that drew Miles to the war. It was the that fact that he was doing something that helped his world.


These past few months have been the worst in his decade and a half experience as a soldier. The constant dull of idleness was worse than a bullet. He felt useless.


Lucky Merna, he thought enviously. Merna Hallaway was his twin sister, and a talented nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital, one of the best hospitals in New York. She was over there helping the people who needed help the most. She was beacon of hope and inspiration, fighting the virus. She was a frontliner now. Not him. Oh how the tables have turned.


As the scorching sun grew higher and hotter in the sky, Miles thought wistfully about how lucky his sister was, to be useful in times like this, and how she’ll rub it in his face when he returned home to New York on leave six months later.


---


Merna clasped the corner of the desk, leaning sideways. A throbbing headache pounded behind her brows. Of course, her head had been hurting all day, wearing a N100 surgical mask, a sealed acetate Mylar face shield, level four isolation gown, and two layers of non-sterile gloves. For the past 15 hours. Without air-conditioning, because all electricity went to the medical equipment of the patients. It made breathing impossible amid 91 degree weather. Or was it 92? She couldn’t remember. She was far too tired.


It wasn’t the sort of tired where you felt like yawning and then maybe resting for a few minutes. It was a ravaging fatigue that threatened to seize her as she was walking and black her out, an inhumane exhaustion that bored down to her bones and crippled her muscles. Several times during the day, black dots clouded her vision, her legs felt numb and she felt light-headed. But she always took another gulp of coffee, another sleeping pill, another wash to the face. She couldn’t rest. Not now. Not when hundreds of patients were waiting for her to strive and make them better.


Merna pulled an all-nighter last night, staying up to treat a 65-year-old woman with coronavirus having a cough attack so bad she splattered blood all over their body suits. She could barely survive the night, so Merna had to embed another intravenous because of her pain and low blood pressure. She then spent the night at the hospital again, finishing her rounds, and helping a little girl with COVID with severe nausea. She could hardly take a break these days. Every week, more people were being testing positive, and every day, more patients were being moved to ICU. And as the head nurse, that’s where she took the majority of her shifts.


ICU was also where critical COVID cases took the lives of the patients. Merna couldn’t bare to think of numbers. It would only make her blame herself for not trying hard enough to save them. She tells herself that it’s okay, people were recovering as well. And that she was doing her very best to increase the numbers. Lenox Hill was now at 514 recoveries over the past month. It was wonderful, watching someone regain immunity and finally breathe freely again. But every time she heard the long, menacing, beep of a stopped heart, for a moment, she’d want to go with them. And the wounded looks the grieving families gave her afterward… It was the most exhausting and depressing job in the world.


After regaining composure, she stood straight and made her way to the children’s unit. It was one of her favorite places in the hospital. For one, it was brightly colored with colorful walls depicting fairyland and racetracks, very different from the dull blue walls of the rest of the hospital. And the children always made Merna’s day, no matter how bad it was. Their goofy stories and smiles were bright, despite the circumstances. She always tried to be more positive like them.

When she entered the unit, she saw Kevin Berrier, another nurse, giving the kids a puppet show. He did a great job, making all the little patients giggle, even sulky Ava. She laughed as Kevin had a unicorn puppet magic a parrot into a phoenix.


Entertainment was not in their work description; it was something they did on their own. Like Merna, everyone loved the children. These kids had the virus, which terrified them because of what they’d see on the news. So the nurses did everything they could to bring a smile to their faces. Merna herself fit a dance recital for the kids yesterday with two other nurses, Nicole and Anna. Despite her jam packed schedule and exhaustion, there was no way she’d pass up the chance to bring a smile to morose Joel’s face, or angry Carl’s, or any of those children.


They’re good kids, she thought. Even Joel, who thrashed whenever he had to take his medicine, down to Ava, a twelve year old who used the most colorful language ever heard from a child’s mouth. She loved kids, and often dreamed of having one. But first she needed someone. Maybe someday. Someday soon. She thought with a fluttery heart.


Merna rarely had time for dates because of her job. It wasn’t like she didn’t want to. She knew she was missing out. But who would go near an over-worked nurse at one of the most corona-infested hospitals in the state?


Yet, as of recently, there was someone. It could’ve been the wishy-washy girlish crush, but it was there all the same. The worst part? He was a patient. With the virus.


Allen Peters had tested positive for COVID 19 six months ago. Despite being immuno-compromised with anemia and bronchitis, his symptoms were a cross, some days mild, other times severe. And out of the nearly thousand of patients Merna tended, he had a special place in her heart.


He was the warmest, most genuine person she’d ever met. It didn’t matter the situation, he always had a smile on his face, hoping for the best. Merna loved to sit on his hospital bed between her shifts and talk to him. They’d chat from everything to politics to the ocean to puppies and everything in between. He was the sort of person who you could talk to without making an effort.


He was a civil engineer with a fiery passion for equality. He once ranted about police brutality to African Americans so furiously he began coughing vehemently. It was several minutes before he recovered, and when he did, he went right back to venting on why the police should be defunded if they were using their position for violence.


Merna thought he was pretty, too. Of course, six months of disease didn’t improve anyone’s beauty, but with his bright smile, he always looked… alive. Merna thought his eyes were like radiant sunlight glittering through bright green leaves on a spring day, despite the pallor of his face. And his smile. She loved his smile. It was his best feature. She especially loved the smile he gave her yesterday.


They had been chatting over the nurses. He was sullenly back-stabbing the doctors and nurses, saying how hated them all.


“So don’t you like any of us?” She asked with an edge of laughter in her voice.

His brows tensed minutely before answering. He gazed with the most sincere side smile anyone has ever given her, and something else she couldn’t put her finger on.


“Only one,” He said as he took her gloved hand. Merna went pink and grinned through her face shield. For a moment, it didn’t matter that he was the patient and she was the doctor. She grasped his fingers, hating and disregarding the thick gloves. For a moment, she shared some of his hopes and that if he recovered… well…


The sound of restless squeaking footsteps pulled her out of her reverie. Nurse Nicole appeared looking terrified. Through her face shield, Merna could see her sickly pale complexion, her eyes wild with fear, and features contorted with grief.

Merna heart dropped; that was what she often looked when they were about to lose someone.


Merna wasted no time. “Who?” Nicole swallowed several times, and shivered.


“Allen,”


With that, Merna was sprinting down the halls. From what Nicole explained as the ran, his vitals had been worsening through the day. They had to plug him into another ventilator because of the exacerbations of his bronchitis, but it didn’t help. Bronchitis blocked his airway, his anemia compromised his blood cells from delivering any oxygen, and the coronavirus reduced his number of cytokines, which caused his immune cells start to attack what was left of his healthy tissues. His blood vessels were leaking, blood pressure dropped, clots formed, and catastrophic organ failure was about to ensue.


Merna couldn’t stop the tears from flowing as she listened to Nicole. No, she thought. No no no no. Not Allen. She quietly sobbed.


“I’m sorry,” Nicole croaked, as she held her elbow.


Merna entered his quarantine room. If Nicole hadn’t been supporting her, she would’ve toppled over and died right there and then.


Allen’s heart monitor’s beeping was a horrible noise. The time between beeps was another piece of Merna’s heart falling away. The tangle of wires slithering from his ghostly wrists to machines were frightening.


But Allen was the painful sight. To say that he was pale was an understatement. His face was so pallid, there was a tinge of yellow in his face, and his lips lost all their color. His eyelids and sockets were blackish and bagged, and his veins were thin and seedy and whitish-green. His face was shuddering, as if trying to hold his face together was a strain. And his smile was gone. His beautiful, kindly smile she secretly admired for months. It was clear to see he was deteriorating.


She paced to his bedside and sat by his pillow. Wearily, he looked up at her. “Merna” He whispered.


“Shh, save your breath for when your family comes,” She rasped. She took his hands and brushed his hair. She had seen death before. And not just during the pandemic. Yet, it was the worst because it was her best friend.


“I don’t have. Only you.” He croaked as he gazed up at her.


The statement shocked and saddened her. He alluded that most of his family was dead or distant, but she didn’t think it was this bad.

“Oh Allen, I’m so sorry, I–"


“It’s okay. I lived happy. That’s what matters.” He rasped as he touched the fringe of her face shield.


“I’d rather die looking at you anyway,”


“What?” She gave him a confused look through her tears.


“You’re more than my favorite nurse, Merna. You are my favorite person.” Her breath hitched and nodded to reply. There were too many glass shards in her throat to talk.


“You are the most special person I know,” He added, caressing her covered wrists.


“And the brightest thing in my world, okay?” He stared at her to make sure she understood.


She let out a convulsed sob, “I don’t want you to go,” She sobbed, holding him closely to her.


He put a hand on her shoulder, and when she looked at him, his face was earnest.


“I will never leave you. I'll always watch over you, no matter what. Because you don’t let go of people like you,”


She shook with sobs, heartfelt yet heartbroken. She couldn’t bare to think what it would be like to not talk to him anymore, to not listen to his voice, look at his eyes, see his smile. To let go of the first person she loved.


He pulled off a silver band of his finger and put it into her hands. She began to decline, but the broken look he gave her silenced her remonstrance.


“Please. Take it. You made the last few months of my life beautiful.” He said.

She stared at the simple ring. It was commonplace, nothing special. But it would be her prized possession from now on.


“I love you,” She whispered.


He gave her one last smile. To the end, he would always be joyful.



“I love you too,”



And with that, he shivered, and drew a final breath. Merna watched his eyes dim from viridescent to grey, losing their light. The pauses between beeps lengthened. Then one, malignant beep to signal the stop of his pure, lively, wonderful heart. He had died in her arms.


And she cried. She sobbed and sobbed, oblivious to the arms and hands that held her, attempting to comfort her. She couldn’t care anymore. He was the best of them all. And now he’s gone. Then slowly, one by one, she was alone in his room.


The delicate strings holding her together, keeping her falling apart under the weight of her work and worry and tiredness crumbled. She wasn’t a hero. She wasn’t a fighter. She couldn’t protect all those innocent people who were counting on her. She was just a tired, broken soul with too many responsibilities, too many expectations.


She looked at the ring in her hand. No, she thought, I was his hero. And if I didn’t let him down, I can’t let myself down.


So Merna went and dropped the ring at the sterilization center, where they’d coronavirus-proof it. She washed her face, and returned to her rounds.


She was helping the people who needed help the most. She was making a difference. She was beacon of hope and inspiration, fighting the virus.

She was a front liner now. And she was never going to stop fighting and doing her duty until COVID 19 was gone, no matter what. She was going to be brave and not give up.


Whatever it takes.





August 05, 2020 09:07

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

9 comments

13:15 Aug 10, 2020

Such a heart-melting story! Congrats :))

Reply

Saron Mengistu
16:21 Aug 10, 2020

Thank you for the kind words!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Aditya Pillai
08:33 Aug 08, 2020

That was a wonderful story. I don't often see such empowering/real-life heroes kind of thing often in stories, so this was a breath of fresh air. Loved this, it was so powerful. You succeeded in engaging the reader and making them feel the emotions you want to convey. Great read, Would love your feedback on my work :)

Reply

Saron Mengistu
09:20 Aug 08, 2020

Thank you so much for the kind words. It would be my honor to check your work:))

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Doubra Akika
17:18 Aug 06, 2020

Another powerful story! Loved the patient, doctor complex. Also love the ready to save the world complex. Makes us appreciate the people that want to make a difference and the people that impact lives. Very creative use of the prompt. I felt so much emotion reading this! Would you mind checking out my recent story?

Reply

Saron Mengistu
07:32 Aug 07, 2020

Hey Doubra! Thank you so much for taking the time to review my story!! I'd love to look at your story. I often enjoy them;))

Reply

Doubra Akika
08:46 Aug 07, 2020

Thank you! And it was my pleasure.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply

I loved your use of words in the story. I like that you went for an empowering route. Very good use of the prompt. I enjoyed very much, well done. Please go check out my story it was a good day🤟🏾😁

Reply

Saron Mengistu
14:35 Aug 06, 2020

Thank you for taking the time to review my story! I'll check yours out:))

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.