“Full moon tonight,” nurse Mary Bennett remarked, tying the strings of her paper gown with raw cracked fingers.
The rest of the night shift stirred uneasily. Louise kissed the delicate silver crucifix that hung around her neck and muttered a prayer to the ceiling. Michael re-tied his shoelaces three times. Shelley lifted her face shield to chug the remains of a Red Bull.
Superstition always flicked its forked tongue in the face of science on nights like this.
Outside, the fluorescent EMERGENCY sign shivered awake. A splattering drizzle and wailing wind mimicked the ICU’s dripping tears and whooshing ventilators. No beds were available for the typical October 31st rush of overdoses, alcohol poisonings, pranks gone wrong, car-crushed trick-or-treaters, or satanic-inspired mutilations.
“Is it just us then?” Michael asked.
“It’s just us,” Mary confirmed. “I hear Priya is out with flu symptoms, Jordan has gone on stress leave, no one could get hold of Trish, and Roxanne…”
“Is it true?” Shelley asked.
Mary pursed her lips.
Louise heaved herself to her feet. “Unbelievable. A medically trained professional, who’s seen what we’ve seen….”
Wheezing ghouls unable to pull oxygen from the air. Desiccated youths with rattling chests. Athletes unable to walk. Expecting mothers in comas. Silent shrouded shapes rolled through the sterile halls on squeaky wheels.
A nurse who spent two years swaddled in the soundtrack of death’s laments and yet refused the vaccine was as unreal as the spooks and spirits that haunted All Hallows’ Eve lore.
As they dispersed to their assigned stations, Mary wondered whether Roxanne’s alleged fear of inoculation was merely an excuse to escape their recurring nightmare.
She pushed past the pincers of the automatic doors into the Emergency waiting room and headed for the Eye. The Eye—also known as the triage desk—sat at the center of the continuously revolving storm of incoming broken limbs and bloody lacerations, faltering organs and concussed brains, psychotic breaks and heart attacks.
Mary noted a group of Squid Game masks juggled on pink jump-suited knees in the far corner. Their hooded heads were merged in deep discussion, preventing her from seeing any visible injuries. She winced at the screeching wail of a tiny Elsa cradling her arm under the crook of her mother’s shoulder.
The rest of the hard plastic chairs were empty, taped off with crumpled paper signs or gleaming with the saliva of sanitizer.
The security guard patrolling the floor offered a sad salute as she passed.
“Quiet,” Mary murmured to Dr. Hansen, who suddenly appeared at her side.
A couple years ago, before burnout singed away his enthusiasm, he’d come to the Halloween shift wearing the bird mask of the medieval pestilence. Its bulging black eyes had frightened patients and staff alike. Its scythe-like beak had tangled in bedside curtains and nearly impaled impatient nurses. He’d had to wear it pushed up on his forehead most of the night like a deformed black unicorn horn.
This year, he was one of many reluctant reapers, gaunt and grey behind the plastic mask of the modern plague.
“Let’s cross our fingers it stays that way.” He probably smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, grim above the ridge of his mask.
Mary gave him a pointed look, and he rapped his knuckles on the wooden arm of a nearby chair, too little too late.
“You can’t ask me that!” A caped lady with big hair and crimson talons shrieked at the day-shift nurse manning the Eye as they approached.
“Yes,” Beattie sighed. “We can.”
“You people have no business asking about my health records!”
“Ma’am, this is a hospital.”
Mary gave Beattie a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. Retreating to the other side of the desk with Dr. Hansen at her heels, she began shifting through the intake charts.
“Was there something you needed, Doctor?”
“Oh, no,” he peered curiously at the charts, the edge of his shield slicing at her shoulder. “I heard we have a stroke on the way.”
“And an OD,” Beattie slid an empty clipboard into the pile as the furious clacking of plastic heels was swallowed by the night. Evidently, the woman preferred to suffer her ailment over a supposed breach of privacy.
Louise appeared to pick up the top chart. “Hailey?” she called, and the sniffling little Elsa and her mother followed her away.
The first ambulance arrived, and Dr. Hansen escorted the gurney-toting crew to the back.
Beattie murmured “Good luck tonight” and made her escape.
At 7:36 p.m., Mary was left in the unnerving stillness, shuffling papers, ears on the phone and eyes on the door.
At 1:47 a.m., Mary wondered whether they would make it to dawn, and if it was possible that two full moons could be floating around the wicked sky.
The glimpses she’d caught of their sparse crew screamed madness. Michael’s shoelaces were untied, Shelley had probably polished off too many Red Bulls than was strictly safe, and Louise was muttering blasphemies that would resurrect a dead nun.
In just six hours they processed three strokes, four car accidents, seven overdoses, and one man naked, frothing at the mouth, and handcuffed to a gurney with an escort of three armed officers. Two new COVID cases were also admitted, but fortunately (for the incoming, not the outgoing) four ICU beds had opened to accommodate them.
Mary was changing gloves when a familiar round face burst through the door. Roxanne’s wispy brown hair was slicked by the rain, the ridges of her scalp rising like a cap of ribs. She scanned the dismal chaos until her eyes alighted on Mary.
“Mary! It’s my mother-in-law,” Roxanne gestured back at her husband and the elderly woman gripping his arm. “She’s…She can’t breathe.”
“You didn’t call an ambulance?”
“It’s Halloween. It’s…”
“Never mind,” Mary waved her off and helped the wheezing Mrs. Murdo into a chair. “Let’s take care of first things first. Mrs. Murdo? I’m Mary. We’re going to take good care of you.”
When Michael (with a betrayed grimace tossed at the deserter) wheeled Mrs. Murdo away from her family to join the rest of the deflating corpses in the ICU, Mary broke protocol and squeezed Roxanne’s hand. “She’ll be well taken care of, and just fine.”
No one knew better than Roxanne that this was a lie coated in kindness. No matter what she did or didn’t do, there was no escaping the nightmare.
Mary read the despair that rippled across her face and, from behind the confines of her PPE, tried to tamp down her judgement and express compassion instead. There was no time for soft sympathy though, as the doors slid wide to admit a staggering Donald Trump with vomit spilled down his polyester tie and a Babe Ruth who was smoking a lit cigar.
By the time Mary doused the flames of the immediate crisis, Roxanne and her husband had slipped away into the dark.