Monsters and Machines

NOMMED FOR MOVELLA OF THE YEAR 2017

Nabdale is the most boring town in England. It’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s full of cabbages, and all its residents can talk about is the lights in the sky.

On Sunday night, the lights come down, and barely anyone notices. The few who take notice have three days before they’re silenced. First comes the headache. Then, the nightmares begin. And after that, there’s no waking up.

As a very crazy, very real conspiracy theory takes Nabdale by storm, the residents are forced to push the boundaries of what they believe, and what they’ll do to survive. They’ll have to watch their loved ones suffer; they’ll have to abandon their normal lives, and everything they thought they knew about humanity. They’ll have to die. They’ll have to kill. Sickness and hysteria spread like wildfire, and the plot only gets stupider. It’s the end of the world, and they’re either too early, or too late, to stop it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.

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6. Doctor Angel

She’d briefly considered calling an ambulance. Only because she was scared of driving, and knew from surfing the internet that ambulances had been called for stupider things than a middle-aged woman whose headache made her scared to get up. God, she was acting like an eighty-year-old. Eventually, though, she’d decided to brave the road. After all, Dylan wasn’t in the car with her this time. If she crashed, the only dead one would be her. Her delirium made that seem okay. At least if she died, she’d stay dead and the pain would fucking stop.

There was no GP in Nabdale. There was only the hospital, that shiny white block of windows sticking out from the middle of the forest on the outskirts of town Harriet had barely even remembered to call ahead to make an appointment, but she’d known that if she waited any longer, she’d pass out or throw up her guts and forget to even go. Showing up at the hospital without an appointment was better than showing up in a body-bag, right? Right? She was being ridiculous. She wasn’t going to fucking die; she was the main character. Her delirium had grown so thick that the random thoughts flashing through her head didn’t even make sense or fit together. One minute, she wanted to die, and the next, she was terrified she actually would.  When she left home, she was willing to do whatever it took to make this pain go away, but the closer she got to the hospital, the more she doubted they’d be able to help her. What if this wasn’t the flu after all? What if she was really ill? Irreversibly ill? God, she felt like she’d never get better. She thought of all the time she’d spent taking her legible head and properly-paced heartbeat for granted.

Harriet had had more than her fair share of illnesses in her lifetime. She had her insomnia to thank for that. But the last time she’d been in this hospital had been when Dylan was born. This waiting-room, with its dizzyingly, nauseatingly clean smell, was new to her, and she spent three hours there, waiting, with nothing to do but fixate on petty details. The floor was black and grey plaster, tacky under her feet and ridged with beige putty at the joins. There was a chip in the white paint of the wall next to her head which she fussed with her fingers till she noticed the receptionist looking at her. There were thirteen magazines in that pile on the coffee-table opposite her- seven pink, three red, two white and one grey- and all the chairs were that dun shade of blue-green that only existed in hospitals. She discovered that her headache dulled itself to a low whine when she tilted her head all the way up, so that was what she did; she stared desperately up at the ceiling till she’d memorised and mentally rearranged the constellation of chips in the ceiling-paint half a million times. Even when the pain was numbed, it still screamed so loudly she could barely breathe.

“Harriet Hyde?” The nurse at the end of the corridor called at long last.

“Thank f-f...fuck.” Harriet said, gaining a surprised glare from the little boy next to her and an angry one from his mother. Harriet shrugged and struggled up, wondering if she was going to faint again, but she reckoned the fainting stage was over. Now, she was well into the slurred-speech-and-bungled-thoughts stage, apparently.

“S…orry.” Harriet waved a hand at the mother. “For swearing. I’ve an ex…cuse. I’m del…irious.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“So…” The doctor said calmly. “You came in for a headache. Is that right?”

“Yeah. I guess… that’s one way of putting it. Ex…cuse the… voice.” Harriet coughed and ground her hands together in her lap. “It’s just the headache’s actually so bad I seem to be gradually forgetting the English language.”

“Okay.” The doctor looked down at his desk to write something else down, and it occurred to Harriet that he hadn’t looked her in the eye once since she’d walked through the door. He looked too young to be a doctor, really, even though he had that stoic, robotic way about him that seemed required amongst all doctors. Doctor Angel, his name was. Doctor Angel was white as a ghost. He was tall, and wiry under his white coat, with dark hair and a jittery look in his eyes. He must have been hoping she’d missed the tremble in his hands. Harriet knew she looked like death. But this guy was just making her feel worse.

“Have you been drunk or taken drugs recently?”

Harriet laughed. “No.”

“Do you have any sort of drug or alcohol habit?”

“Not since my late teens.”

“Okay. Are you on any medication?”

“Apart from slightly too much aspirin, no.”

He looked up. “How much did you take?”

“About five. Trust me, if your head hurt this badly you’d do it too.”

“And…” He trailed off. That nervous look in his eyes was getting worse. “Did the medication help at all?”

“No.”

“O…kay.” He wrote something else down.

“If you don’t mind me saying something?” Harriet said. He nodded.

“This isn’t the flu. I know all I mentioned was the headache, but… it’s… not just that. I have heartburn too, and I’ve fainted this morning, and the pain got so bad that I forgot the layout of my own house and my son’s name. And I’ve been having nightmares, too. I mean, I have insomnia, but this was something else. I swear. My heartbeat was going nuts- absolutely nuts. I’ve never been this ill in my life before.

The doctor had paled even more. Was it something she’d said? Did he know what was wrong? Was he about to tell her? Harriet felt sorry for him.

“And…” he asked. “You said your heart rate’s too high.”

“Yeah.”

“Have you noticed any changes in your, uh, breathing at all?”

Harriet sighed. Her heart was still pounding, actually. “That’s the weird thing. No.”

“I think we ought to take a look at that heart, then.” The doctor rolled his chair over to her, pulling the stethoscope up off his neck.

Harriet fingered her shirt. It was the same one she’d slept in. “Do I…”

“Uh, no. It’s fine.” He pressed the metal end to her chest and listened. She watched his face and was not disappointed.

“High?” She said softly.

“Yes, a little high.” The doctor blinked and pulled the stethoscope away.

She raised her eyebrows. “A little?”

“Very. Very high. But nothing… nothing to worry about, assuming it’s just the flu. Do you have a fever at all?”

“Um…” Harriet thought. “Not really. I woke up sweating and shivering, but I’ve never felt hot. Too cold, if anything.”

“Okay.” He smiled softly and turned to write something else down. Harriet decided she didn’t hate him.

“Well, just to be safe, I think I’d better check your blood pressure. Would you mind rolling up your sleeve?”

Harriet shrugged and pulled her jacket off one shoulder. The doctor wrapped the cuff around her upper arm, and Harriet fidgeted as it started constricting.

She frowned as his eyes widened and he nodded in silence. Wait a second. Why was she getting the impression he knew something she didn’t? She felt her blood running cold as the doctor started agitatedly tapping his pen on the corner of the table.

“Is it bad?” She said.

The doctor coughed out a laugh. “Well, uh, I’m afraid so. Yes. It’s very high. It’s, uh… strange you’ve been feeling faint, to be honest… That usually comes with low blood pressure.”

“Huh.”

“But it should lower.”

“Should?”

He looked up at her as the cuff started loosening. “Yes. Yes, it should be fine. It’ll just be the flu, I’m sure, but we need to keep an eye on it.”

Harriet breathed out, trying to feel relieved. He’d just told her she was going to be fine- why wasn’t she relaxing?

Maybe it was because she could’ve sworn he was lying to her. Or maybe it was the way he’d suddenly started looking at her.

“Is everything okay?” She asked nervously.

“Do you…” he trailed off. For some reason, his composure seemed to have broken. “Do you mind if I ask what that is on your face?”

Harriet froze. “What?”

“Just…” He waved his hand over his chin. Harriet brought her hand to her face and he flinched.

“Don’t touch it,” he said. “Do you want to look in the mirror?”

“Um, yeah.” Harriet tried not to bite her lip in worry. She got up and walked over to the mirror, taking in the yellow tinge of her skin, the violet rings around her eyes, and lastly, the thick grey line running down from the corner of her mouth.

“Oh. God.” Harriet rubbed it, assuming it was a remnant of grey vomit from that morning, but it didn’t budge. It gave way softly under her finger when she scrubbed, and then she realised it was under her skin.

“Oh my god.”

“Do you mind?” The doctor got up and gently took her chin in both his hands, tilting her head to one side to get a better look.

“Okay,” he said, pressing and then releasing it. “Okay.”

“What is it?” Harriet said, fear leaking into her voice without her permission.

“I’m not… sure at this stage.”

“God damnit, you’re a doctor!”

“I know,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Stay calm, Harriet, okay? You’re going to be fine.”

He didn’t sound like he believed it himself.

“Really? How do you know?” She said, fingering the lump under her skin. It was a vein. A vein, dark grey under her translucent skin. “What’s wrong with me, then?”

“I, uh…”

Harriet slapped her knees with both hands as she sank back into her chair. “It’s funny, because I thought it was vomit. From this morning. And I would’ve…” her voice tugged upwards into a squeak as she choked back tears. “I would’ve been relieved. Even though…”

“You’ve been vomiting?” He interrupted her, sitting back down in his chair.

“Yeah.” Harriet sniffed, waving her hand in resentment. “And it was… it was-”

“Black?”

Harriet blinked down at her lap in shock. Then, she raised her head to look up at the doctor properly. He was still pale as milk, and his eyes looked a little too wide to be normal. His hands weren’t shaking, but only because he’d clamped them tight around his pen when he’d turned to face her. He was looking at her. And he’d just finished her sentence.

“Grey, actually.” She said feebly.

What did he know? What the fuck did he know?

“Harriet, do you mind if I ask you something?” He said. Nerves were ripening in his voice.

Harriet waved her hand, swallowing the lump in her throat and feeling it bobbing right back up again.

“Yes.”

“If I, uh…” The doctor paused and looked down at his hands again. Whatever he was about to say, he wasn’t proud of himself for it. “If I mentioned, uh… green lights to you, would you know what I was talking about?”

Harriet’s eyes shot wide open and she jerked her head up to look at him. What? What the fuck?

She bit her lip and her voice shook. “Y-y-yes.”

There was a long pause. The doctor picked up his stack of sheets and tapped them against the desk, refusing to look her in the eye. He was biting his lip, too. But he was trying to hide it.

“Why?” Harriet asked him, louder.

“No, uh… No reason.” The doctor looked at her. “It just might…”

Another long silence. Then, he finished his sentence.

“Help. It might help.”

“Oh… okay.” Harriet bit her lip. This wasn’t good. This was not good.

“So what’s wrong with me?” Harriet said, leaning forward in her seat. Oh, god, she could feel that vein under her skin, throbbing against her jawline at ten times the normal pace and dragging sickness into her throat.

The doctor sighed. “Well, at this point, I’m afraid we can’t be sure.”

Harriet said nothing.

“But it’s not…” She paused. “It’s definitely not nothing.”

“It, uh… it still might be.” He told her. “It still might… but I don’t… I don’t think it’s nothing, no.”

“What do you think it is?”

“I think…” The doctor said. “Look, I’m so sorry for dancing around you like this. But I don’t know what to say, because I’m afraid we, uh… We have another… We have reason to believe you might, um… be in some danger.”

Harriet frowned. “Danger?

“Mmm.”

“What sort of danger?”

“I… I’m sorry. I can’t… put it into words for you. In fact… No. I can’t say more.” The doctor blinked. “I shouldn’t have said that. If I was following protocol, I’d have told you it was flu and given you some painkillers.”

“But you’re not, I’m assuming.”

“Not what?”

“Following protocol.”

“Why not?”

Harriet leaned forwards. “You stuttered. Doctors never stutter.”

He laughed. “I do. A lot.”

She laughed too, but the laugh was dry in her throat.

 “No. I can’t. I’m sorry.” The doctor signed the piece of paper on his desk and ran his eyes over it before handing it to her. “Look, forget what I just said. I’m sorry. I was wrong to say those things to you. I’m wrong. It’s nothing to worry about, okay?”

At the bottom of her prescription, he’d written flu. That, and aspirin and rest.

“It shouldn’t be a problem, Harriet. It should clear up soon. Come back if you have any more problems, won’t you?”

Harriet blinked, gouging angry tears from her eyes. “You’re not being very… professional…” She scanned her prescription and spotted the name under the signature. “George.”

George Angel. Nice name for a backstabber.

“It’s just the flu, Harriet.” He was trying to take back what he’d already said. What he’d already done. Like it was nothing. “It’ll clear up. Just make sure you stay indoors, drink lots of water, and stay away from family members for a few days.”

He was lying to her. He was fucking lying to her. He knew something.

Harriet looked at her prescription, then at him, not caring for once that there were tears falling from her eyes.

“Is there nothing you can tell me?” She said.

“I…” He trailed off. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing to say.”

“Okay.” Harriet walked towards the door, then paused with one hand on the handle. “What if I broke my leg?”

“I- I’m sorry?”

“What if I opened this door and slammed my leg in it so hard it snapped in two? You’d have to keep me overnight and help me then, wouldn’t you?”

“I’m sorry, Harriet,” he repeated.

She turned back to look at him. He was looking back at her with worry filling his eyes.

“Go home and rest,” he told her. “It’s just the flu. You’ll be alright.”

Harriet nodded and opened the door, crumpling the piece of paper in her fist. She felt sorry for the doctor. Almost as sorry as she felt for herself.

“Bullshit.” She growled, pulling the door shut behind her.

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