“They’re calling in a locksmith.”
Daphne’s words punched me in the gut. “Can you drive?” I asked.
“Are you lying?”
“No. Today’s been a good one. I can handle it.”
“What about the kids?”
“Asleep. Ron’s got them.”
My snort must’ve passed through the mic, because she added, “He’s been trying lately. Really trying.”
I let it go. “See you in five,” I said.
The Skype call ended and I directed my electric wheelchair down the hallway. My elderly parents slumped against each other in front of a primetime police procedural in the living room, mouths open and snoring. They didn’t hear Daphne slip through the front door several minutes later, wearing one of her rainy-day N95 masks and a look of sheer determination. Such masks didn’t fit over the mouthpiece I used to breathe, so I’d be going without. I’d swapped out the viral filter on the ventilator suspended from the back of my chair that morning. It would have to be enough.
“Keys?” Daphne said.
I pointed to the small table inside the door with my chin.
The chill night air pinched at my cheeks as I made my methodical way to the accessible minivan in the driveway. Daphne, bolstered by the presence and utility of her cane, got me into the van and my chair tied down without testing the patience of either one of us for once.
Urquhart waited at the curb outside his apartment complex, masked and angry. “A locksmith?” he said after he’d wheeled inside the van, tying himself down behind Daphne in the driver’s seat.
I took a puff from my mouthpiece from the front passenger side. “Yep.”
“Sons of bitches.”
Darnell’s front door opened immediately upon our arrival, but we had to wait while his mom brushed his hair and fixed his tie under the porch lights. When he reached the van, he stomped up the deployed ramp and threw himself onto the rear bench seat behind Urquhart.
“We’re going to save Nasr,” he announced.
Urquhart reached behind his chair and squeezed Darnell’s pudgy fingers. “Fuckin’ A.”
We had to honk twice for Xiomara before they appeared, picking their way down the front steps of their duplex with the help of a white cane. A concerned Labrador peeked between curtains on the second floor, watching.
“You’re not bringing Hot Nose?” Darnell asked them when they reached the van.
“Not today,” they said, using their hand to make sure they didn’t smack their forehead on the van doorway again. “I know dogs aren’t supposed to get the bug, but I didn’t want to take any chances.” They sat down next to Darnell. “Besides, I’ve got you to guide me.”
As we pulled away from the duplex, Xiomara raised their phone to their ear. “Wendy says she’s coming,” they said.
Urquhart twisted toward them. “No shit?”
“None whatsoever. Says she wouldn’t miss it.”
Wendy’s husband Lee rolled her out to the van from their sprawling ranch house, her face pinched in a pain so deep she looked like she’d been impaled. Before he’d even gotten her positioned in the final wheelchair spot directly behind me, she took a shuddering breath and said, “A locksmith? Seriously?”
“That’s what Farah told me,” Daphne said. “She’s with him now.”
Wendy’s eyes, glazed over in a better-than-nothing opiate haze, squeezed shut. “Fucking Nazis.”
Lee knelt down on the ramp beside her. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “You haven’t gotten out of bed for three weeks. And what happens if you catch it?”
“It’s Nasr, Lee,” she said. “All of us or none of us, remember?”
“Then at least let me go with you.”
“I don’t know, honey. This is kind of a disabled people only thing.”
“Oh come on! Who else is going to push you? Besides, everybody’s got something wrong with them. I had my appendix taken out. And my wisdom teeth. And my tonsils. Hell, I’m half the man I used to be.”
She rolled her eyes and caught mine in the reflection of the windshield. “What do you guys think?”
“Fuck it,” I said. “We need all the allies we can get. Let him come.”
Lee nodded in relief. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
Social distancing had made traffic a thing of the past, so we pulled into the parking lot ten minutes later and proceeded to take nearly that long getting everyone unloaded and situated. Daphne passed out masks to those of us who could use them and didn’t have them, then the seven of us single-filed our way up the access ramp and through the automatic doors into the hospital.
Chaos ruled the lobby, with concerned family members swamping the main desk and jostling with security. Fortunately, we knew Nasr’s room number from Farah and definitely looked like we belonged in the place. One of the security staff glanced at Lee, who returned a thumbs up, and we were through.
We held our breath with various levels of success during the short elevator ride up to the third floor, then all made the heroic choice to inhale when the doors opened. Mere feet away, two people parked head-to-head on gurneys shared a single ventilator. A medical student–no doubt having recently earned a battlefield promotion to full-fledged doctor by the pandemic–rocked on the floor with his head in his hands.
The double-doors to the ICU–barred to all who lacked proper credentials in earlier times–hung open, propped in place by several more nomadic gurneys. Farah paced the hall a discrete distance away, her headscarf rearranged to cover her face. Tears darkened the turquoise fabric.
When she saw us, she bolted in our direction, but stopped short. “Six feet,” she said, then laughed. “Good luck finding it in here.”
Daphne tapped her in the foot with her cane. “You doing okay?”
“Not really. But I appreciate the reinforcements.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“This way,” she said, raising her hands to wipe her eyes, but then thinking better of it.
Hardened and harried medical staff filled the corridors, darting between displaced patients and haphazard accumulations of supplies. Farah led us through the mayhem, eventually stopping at a glass-faced room down the hall and around a corner. Nasr lay on the bed inside, motionless but for the rise of his mechanically ventilated chest. Sedated, most likely.
A person in full protective equipment sat on a chair at the side of his bed, bent forward and working on something.
“That the locksmith?” I asked.
Fresh tears sprung from Farah’s eyes as she managed a nod.
“Whose idea were the cuffs?” I asked.
She smiled. “Nasr’s.”
Wendy shifted in her chair. “Not that it slowed these ghouls down much.”
“It did enough,” I said. “The rest is up to us.”
With that, I mashed my joystick to the side and slammed into the glass wall with my footrest as hard as I could. The locksmith didn’t even look up.
I glanced at my friends and they joined in, banging with foot and elbow and wheelchair and cane. Thanks to their help, the locksmith jerked up from his task, abandoning the handcuffs meant to keep sticky hospital fingers from the ventilator Nasr had used for ten years before the bug even existed.
“What the hell is going on here?” a voice boomed behind us. A doctor, bloodshot and hollow.
I took a puff on my mouthpiece. “We should ask you the same thing,” I said. “Why are you stealing his ventilator?”
The doctor–his ID tag said “Vadh”–sighed. “The patient has been with us for five days and no improvement. It is time for his ventilator to be given to a more promising candidate.”
“What the flying fuck does that mean?” Urquhart said.
“We have a protocol that determines the rationing of our care. It takes into account things such as life expectancy, chance of recovery, and quality of life.”
“Quality of life?” Xiomara said. “What do you know about his quality of life? Have you ever been to one of his parties? If you had, you’d remember. And what about his poems? Ever read one of those? Or talk with one of the dozens of disabled kids he’s mentored over the years?”
Urquhart squeezed his tires and rocked forward. “Quacks like you wrote him off back in high school,” he said. “But he’s still here. He’s a survivor. Or would be, if you’d get the hell out of his god damn way.”
Dr. Vadh scanned our crew, then focused on able-bodied Lee. “It’s all very scientific,” he said to him.
Lee raised his hands. “Don’t try to convince me. I’m just an ally. I don’t dictate, I amplify.”
“This has to be illegal,” Wendy said, sparing a flash of pride toward her husband. “That’s his own personal ventilator. It doesn’t belong to the hospital.”
“The patient has signed a DNR,” Dr. Vadh replied. “A Do Not Resuscitate order.”
“Show us,” I said.
“We want to see where Nasr signed his name,” Daphne said. “The paper.”
Dr. Vadh clasped his hands behind his back. “I’m afraid that would be a violation of the patient’s privacy rights.”
“More like there is no paper,” I said. “Nasr’s like me–his arms don’t work. He can’t sign his name.”
“The hospital has been unable to locate a next of kin, so we are forced to act as power of attorney on his behalf.”
“Bastards,” Urquhart mumbled.
“We’re his kin,” Darnell said, speaking up at long last.
Dr. Vadh studied us one by one. “I find that highly unlikely.” He turned to Farah. “And girlfriend doesn’t count.”
His words hung in the air for several interminable seconds before Wendy finally broke the silence. “Nothing about us without us,” she said.
In response, all seven of us, Lee included, banged on the glass wall, startling the locksmith from his murderous task once more.
“What’s all this noise about?” a new voice said. I turned to see another doctor–“Clavier” according to her tag–standing before us, flanked by two battlefield promotions.
“These wheelchairs and their friends are disputing our treatment of Mr. Bashir,” Vadh said.
“Well, they shouldn’t even be here,” Dr. Clavier said. She snapped her fingers at Lee. “Get your group out of here. The last thing we need on this floor is a fire hazard.”
I glanced down the hallway in disbelief, staring at the supplies and staff and gurneys that blocked access for any person unable to turn sideways. “Are you serious?” I said.
Dr. Clavier squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “I honestly don’t know anymore.”
“Well, here’s something you should know,” I said. “Nasr is known. He is loved. He will be remembered. And if you kill him today, so will you. We won’t forget. We won’t forgive.”
Clavier deflated. “Not many will,” she said. “But if you don’t let us take this ventilator, you consign another patient to death.”
“And if you take this ventilator, you consign Nasr to death,” I said.
“Who was here first?” Wendy asked.
“What?” Clavier said.
“Who was here first? Nasr or this other patient?”
“I hardly think–”
“Your friend. By several days.”
“Then there we go,” Wendy said. “First-come first-served is the only fair way to do it. It saves us from the poor judgment of people like you.”
Vadh glanced at Clavier. “What do you want to do here?” he asked.
“I’m too tired for this,” Clavier said. “Let him keep the vent. And get that locksmith out of there before he catches the damn thing too.”
“We’ve got an eighty-two-year-old male with a positive test and numerous co-morbidities circling the drain on a vent in 326-B. You can have his instead.”
As Vadh and the two battlefield promotions followed Clavier down the hall, the locksmith scurried out of Nasr’s room and into anonymity, but I kept my eyes locked on the doctors.
“First, do no harm,” I whispered. “Then try to prevent it.”
“What?” Xiomara said.
I turned to the rest of the group. “Urquhart. Daphne. Stay here and keep an eye on Nasr.”
Farah appeared beside me. “What about the rest of us?” she asked.
“The rest of us have a date with room 326-B.”
About the Author
Brian Koukol, raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, now makes his home among the salt breezes and open spaces of California’s Central Coast. A lifelong battle with muscular dystrophy has informed the majority of his work, which is written with the aid of voice recognition software. His words have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Eckleburg, and Rogue Agent, among other places. Visit his author website: http://www.briankoukol.com.