EIGHT | Code Gray
Lisa let her hand slip from the mouse and onto her lap. She didn’t move for several minutes, just staring at the screen. She couldn’t remember any of those older pictures being taken. It was like they had happened in a parallel universe. She must have been too young to remember, although some of the photos were from her toddler years when she should have been able to recall the moments as they were captured.
The longer she stared at them, the more frustrated she felt about not remembering them. It wasn’t fair that there was a moment in time when she was genuinely happy but too young to have any recollection of it. Childhood seemed like a dream from which she’d been abruptly awakened. The shock of consciousness had wiped away any traces of that dream, leaving a hollow space where those memories should have been.
Air filled her cheeks and then she exhaled, spinning around in the chair by kicking at the carpet with the heels of her shoes. There was nothing else to do but think, think, think. Thoughts always turned ugly when they were forced. She’d learned that in detention. This was worse than sitting in a room with other people, though. At least then there was company. Even when she was the only one with detention that day, there was always a teacher or janitor or somebody sitting at the front of the room on their phone or reading a book. Lisa sighed and hopped to her feet, waving her arms and stretching. She didn’t mind being alone. She just didn’t like feeling lonely.
She did lunges. Jumping jacks. Anything to distract her from the monotony of silence. But it wasn’t working. She was still thinking about the pictures, troubled by their existence. No, that wasn’t it. There was nothing wrong with the pictures themselves. It was the other thing. The little girl that she knew so well who seemed to exist in a parallel universe. One where there was something to smile and clap about. Where her father actually paid attention to that smile and wanted to capture it and put it on his computer.
So, it wasn’t about her at all.
It was the other, other thing. The thing about him. Who was the dad that took pictures of his kid and put them on a computer? Because it sure as hell wasn’t the man she called—
“Dr. Crane?” the door swung open.
Lisa jumped and whirled around, staring wide-eyed at the door. “Whoa!” she cried, hand fluttering to her chest. “You scared the—”
“Is he here? Did he just leave?” the woman asked quickly, her curly chestnut hair only halfway up on her head. The rest of it had fallen in chunks beside her face. She looked bleary-eyed like the other doctors in the hospital, as if she hadn’t slept in a month or two. According to her dad, the people here lived off of coffee, protein bars, and the pain of others.
Lisa might’ve added that last part...
“I don’t know where he is,” she answered. Her heart had stopped beating a mile a minute and she let her hand drop to her side.
“Okay.” the lady slipped back out of the room, letting the door close behind her.
Lisa pursed her lips in thought before turning back around to look for something to do. The door swung back open. “Gah!” she cried, leaping toward the couch as the woman charged toward her with a green bundle in her hands.
“These are for you. I almost forgot,” she said, tossing her head to get the hair out of her face. Tight curls fell against her cheekbones.
Lisa looked down at the pair of scrubs in surprise, realizing she was still in her robe and underwear. “Thanks,” she replied, grabbing them quickly. She felt embarrassed but in a self-righteous way. If her father had taken the time to keep his promises, she wouldn’t even be at the hospital.
The woman nodded and turned, but not before Lisa got a glimpse of her nametag. It said Tiffany Pelster, RN. “You’re a nurse?” she asked, surprised. The woman seemed more frenzied and tired than the nurses Lisa was used to seeing.
“Yeah, since last year. I’m new here.” Tiffany replied. She didn’t look very old, probably mid-twenties. She must’ve gone to college early, maybe took summer classes too.
“Wow, congratulations?” Lisa made a face.
Tiffany laughed. “Sometimes I’m not too sure, but usually I’m happy about it. It’s been crazy around here lately,” she added.
“Oh?” Lisa asked, pinching at the clothes in her hands. “Lots of patients?”
“Not any more than usual. Just...difficult ones. One, in particular.” Tiffany answered. “I’ve never had to deal with them personally, but they’ve kept everyone busy lately and I’ve had to work double shifts. I guess if I don’t go home soon it’ll be triple shifts.”
“Is that even legal?” Lisa asked, one eyebrow raised.
“I don’t know.” Tiffany shrugged, heading for the door. “But I’ve got to get back to work. I nearly forgot to give you those. I’m supposed to keep an eye on you, but you look like you can handle yourself pretty well.” She gave Lisa a look, eyes moving up and down as she took in her appearance, damp hair all tangled around her shoulders. “When Dr. Crane mentioned he brought his daughter, I thought you’d be much younger.”
Lisa blinked. “He’s a control freak. Doesn’t want me wandering the halls, scaring patients to another hospital.”
“Overprotective?” Tiffany tried optimistically.
“Sure,” Lisa smiled and shrugged. “That’s a nice word.”
Tiffany narrowed her eyes in thought. “You don’t really need me around, do you?” she asked. “You can just hang here, right?”
Lisa put up her hands. “I’m totally fine on my own. I’ve got clothes, air, and a computer with really slow internet. I’m all set.” She gave a thumbs-up.
“Right,” Tiffany seemed doubtful as she edged toward the door. “I’ve got a lot to do, so if you’ll be okay on your own, I think I’d better get back to it. Let me know if you need anything,” she said, pulling the door open and stepping into the hall.
“Got it.” Lisa gave a fake smile. Tiffany had already turned to talk to another nurse in the hallway, letting the door swing shut behind her. “Alone again,” she mused, twisting on her heel as she parted her robe. The pants came on easy, loose enough that she had to pull on the drawstring to shrink the waist. But the shirt didn’t fit. She still had her dark blue tank top on from earlier, but the air in the hospital was a bit cold and an extra shirt would’ve been nice. “What is this?” she grumbled to herself. “A baby hospital where babies work and wear little baby scrubs with little baby stethoscopes around their little baby necks—”
The floor beneath her feet seemed to shudder. She stopped talking and held still. It wasn’t the same traffic rumble she’d felt earlier from cars passing on the street below. This was a more distinct trembling as if the building itself was settling violently. Pulling the shirt back off, Lisa tossed it onto the couch and opened the door to peek into the hallway. The people who’d gathered there a moment ago were gone. Inching outside, she glanced around the corner at the nurse’s station. No one was there.
Down the hall, one of the elevators clunked noisily in the shaft, doors sliding open.
“Uh...hello?” Lisa raised one eyebrow. No one came out of the elevator. The lights flickered overhead, drawing her attention. “What the...” she scowled at the ceiling. Several ideas popped into her head at once. The first was an earthquake, but that would have set off an alarm. The second idea was some kind of lab accident—chemists getting overexcited and putting beakers down on slippery countertops. But, again, there would’ve been an alarm. And what kind of hospital had that sort of lab anyway? She had watched a few medical shows with Pam when they ran out of true crime episodes, so she knew there was a color-coded alarm system in every hospital. Blue was for patients who were basically dying right then and needed a doctor. Red was for fire. Easy enough. But which color was assigned to a chemical emergency? Yellow or orange or something...
A voice came over the speaker system, followed by an alarm. “Code gray,” they said concisely. “Observation ward. Code gray.”
“Gray?” Lisa repeated, puzzled. She glanced out the darkened window, wondering if it stood for a storm warning or something like that. There were clear skies, dark but lit up with a few stars here and there. No sign of a hurricane. Another elevator arrived on the floor, doors sliding open. Lisa stared at it curiously. No one came out. Next to the buttons, a plastic frame fell off the wall, little metal screws bouncing across the tile floor.
Lisa approached cautiously and bent to pick up the plastic. Glancing up, she saw a map on the wall where it had been attached as a protective cover.
“Code gray. Observation ward.” The announcement returned, their voice less relaxed.
“Observation...” she muttered, tracing a finger over the map beside the elevator. There was a list of wards and their respective floors. “Ah-hah. There you are.” The observation ward was on the second floor of the hospital, just down the hall.
The elevator doors parted behind her and several men came rushing out. Their uniforms said SECURITY in bold letters on the back and their stern demeanor sent her hurrying back to get out of the way. The two of them set off at a run down the hall without more than a cursory glance in her direction. Lisa watched for a moment, then followed, no longer bored.
She made it to the end of the hall without being seen and managed to duck past the security door after the guards used their keycards to get through. There were people in this part of the hospital, but they all looked flustered and didn’t seem to notice her. The nurses behind a set of Plexiglas windows were talking to each other in hushed voices while doctors rushed by, white coats flaring out behind their knees. The doors to the rooms were locked, each one labeled with a number that started with 2. Lisa pushed the handles down as she went by, testing them in case she needed to duck out of sight.
The guards still hadn’t noticed her when they turned the corner and made it to a set of double doors marked with red tape. A sign over the frame read AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. The doors swung open with the swipe of a keycard. Lisa hurried forward, hoping to pass through as she had done before. Rounding the corner, she stopped in her tracks, eyes widening at the sight before her. The doors led to a bright white hallway where people were rushing up and down with cleaning equipment. There was water spraying out of a crack in the wall. Behind her, a robust woman in a white plastic hazmat suit ran by, pushing a cart full of towels and spray bottles. Someone on the other side of the doors held them open for her. Seizing the opportunity, Lisa followed behind the woman, reaching around her to grab a towel from the cart. Making herself look busy, she wiped at the floor and watched as more people came toward her wearing hazmat suits with hoods and masks. They looked like government agents from a sci-fi alien movie.
“What are you doing?”
Lisa jumped, startled by the loud voice right behind her ear. She turned and saw the same woman from before, hands on her hips. “Um, cleaning? Mopping. Helping?” she struggled to find the right answer—the one that wouldn’t get her sent back to her father’s office and away from all the excitement.
“I can see that.” The woman snapped. “Where’s your suit?”
“My...suit?” Lisa bit her lip. “I left it...in my car?”
“Damn. You must be new. Here, take my keycard and go to the supply closet. There’s always an extra one in there.” she held out a black card with a series of numbers printed on the front. “And hurry up,” the woman added. “We need as many hands on this as we can get until maintenance turns the damn water off. Hell, it’s gonna be like the outside of Noah’s Ark up in here. Well, go on. What you waitin’ for?”
Lisa swallowed and blinked, realizing she’d been staring open-mouthed at the woman for too long. “Right,” she nodded and backed away. “Supply closet. That’s just...where?”
“Oh lord, don’t they tell you people nothing before sending you up here? This is the danger zone. They ought to tell you that much.”
“Danger zone?” Lisa repeated.
“It’s by the stairwell, next to the vending machines. Go!”
Lisa turned and ran. She wasn’t sure why she was running, just that it felt like the right thing to do when someone was yelling at her like that. She needed to look like she was in a hurry at least. The edge of the keycard pressed into her palm as she squeezed it hard, making sure it was there. What a curious turn of events. Just a few minutes ago she’d been standing in an empty office with nothing to do. Now there was an entire floor of the hospital opened up to her. She wondered what other places she might be able to get into with the card.
Keeping her eyes peeled for the supply closet, Lisa explored the floor. She wanted to get her hands on one of those white suits but there were so many doors open to her now. The locked rooms lining the hallway had piqued her interest. Checking to make sure there weren’t any nurses around, she held the card up to a little black box, smiling when the light turned green. Pushing the handle, Lisa opened the door.
The room was small, with two beds. Someone—a man with a long beard—sat on one of them and rocked back and forth. His hospital gown was split down the back, revealing pale skin. He turned around suddenly, mouth open as he stared. “You’re here. I knew it. I knew there would be someone who knows. You know, don’t you?” he breathed, sliding onto the floor. His hands slapped the tiles as he crawled toward her. Eyes wide, she backed away and pulled the door shut. It locked.
Hesitating, she decided where to go next. Opening the other doors no longer felt like a good idea. Instead, she made her way straight to the supply closet. The light on the vending machine made it easier to find the right door. The janitor lady had been right. There were a couple of white suits hanging on the wall between storage shelves. One was obviously for a man, the other small but still loose enough to leave room for movement.
Lisa blanched at the sour smell of the weird plastic material but put it on anyway, willing to brave the stench for the sake of adventure. Digging through the shelves, she located a plastic cap that went with the suit and some rubber bands which she used to tie her hair into a messy, flat bun on the top of her head. The cap she found was like a hood but with a gray mesh mask on the front. She put her hand inside of it and puzzled at the inability to see through the mesh until the mask was on. Then she could see clearly through to the outside, her vision only slightly tinted by the panel. Her shoes were completely covered by the suit, but her hands remained bare. Glancing around, she looked for a pair of gloves. There was an unopened box of latex-free ones on the top shelf. She pulled down the box and ripped it open. Purple gloves flew everywhere, fluttering down like leaves from a tree. There were a couple left in the box and she took those, dropping the rest. The gloves snapped against her skin as she pulled them on. She wiggled her fingers and pinched at the rubber, trying to situate it more comfortably against her skin. Tugging them up over the edge of her sleeves, she sealed herself inside the suit like she’d seen people do in the movies. Now all she needed was some duct tape and she’d be airtight. Snug as a bug in a white suit.