We were going to die. We were going to crash and die, and even when I felt the car stop moving, that didn’t matter, because we were going to have an accident, and we were going to die. I was going to die again, and this time, there wouldn’t be any medical miracle to save me. We were going to die we were going to die we were going to—
“Sal!” Nathan tightened his hands on my shoulders, hauling me out of the dark pit I had suddenly fallen into. “Sal, I am so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t mean to do that to you. Please, come on, honey, come back to me. Breathe. You need to breathe, Sal.”
I had to stop screaming before I could breathe in. That felt like one of the hardest things I had ever done. Raising my head was even harder. The drums were pounding in my ears again, louder than they’d ever been before. “The car,” I whispered, staring at Nathan’s pale, drawn face.
“I know, Sal, and I am so sorry. Please believe me, I didn’t think, and I’m sorry. Are you okay? Are you going to be okay if I start driving again?”
No. No, I won’t be okay; let’s leave the car here and walk wherever it is we need to go. We can walk forever if we have to. Just don’t start the car. Numbly, I bit my lip and nodded. I didn’t want to stay here forever, and I knew that we couldn’t walk home. But oh, I wanted to.
“Okay. Good. I am so sorry.” Nathan hesitated before saying, “I hate to ask you this, Sal, but is it all right if we don’t go straight back to your house? I think I need to stop at the hospital.”
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand as I forced myself to sit up. “Okay,” I said, in a small voice.
Nathan started the car and pulled away from the side of the road. We drove on.
The industrial gray San Francisco City Hospital wasn’t built to look imposing or inviting: it was built to house a hospital. It was simultaneously less comforting and more welcoming than SymboGen. Nathan parked in his assigned space beneath the building, gesturing for me to come as he got out of the car and walked briskly toward the employee entrance. I followed. As I did, I realized that I felt oddly unclothed without my shoulder bag, like I was forgetting something essential.
If SymboGen didn’t return my things, I could always replace them and send Dr. Banks the bill. Dwelling on that bitter thought kept me from thinking too hard about where we were going as Nathan led me through the maze of corridors and hallways inside the hospital.
Once we were inside the service elevator bound for the fifth floor, Nathan turned to me and said, “I probably shouldn’t be doing this, but I need to know whether SymboGen has information that they’re not sharing with the rest of us.”
“By ‘doing this,’ you really mean taking me with you, don’t you?”
“I do,” Nathan admitted. The elevator stopped, and he led me to a changing room. “You’re already in scrubs; that’s good. Put on a lab coat and we should be fine.”
I frowned at him. “You’re really serious. You’re not supposed to be doing this.”
“No, I’m not, but I want you with me; you’re the one who saw what Dr. Lo did.” He opened a locker and passed me a lab coat. “Don’t worry. You won’t get in any trouble if we’re caught.”
“I’m not the one I’m worried about here, Nathan.”
He waved off my concern, a grim expression on his face. I usually only saw him looking that serious when someone had died. “I have a clean record, and this problem has been bothering everyone. The worst I’m going to get is a slap on the wrist.”
Somehow, I doubted that his punishment would be quite as light as that, but there was no sense in arguing with him; we’d been dating long enough for me to know when his mind was made up. I shrugged on the lab coat he’d handed me, rolling up the sleeves to keep them from engulfing my hands completely. Nathan smiled.
“You know, there’s nothing in the world hotter than a cute girl in a lab coat,” he said.
I blinked. “With that attitude, I would have expected you to be dating my sister.”
“What can I say? I like what I like. Now come on. We have some protocols to break.”
Nathan led me down the hall, pausing only once, when he ducked into a supply room and emerged with a wand that looked like a more primitive cousin of the one Dr. Lo had used to examine me. He tucked it under his arm, and we started walking again.
At the end of the hall was a large door marked INFECTIOUS MATERIALS: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. There was a large biohazard symbol beneath the sign, in case people didn’t get the point. Nathan ignored it as he pushed the door open and kept walking. I trusted Nathan. I followed him.
The hallway on the other side looked just like every other hall in the hospital… except that there were no people here. The usual mix of doctors, nurses, and orderlies was gone, replaced by the hum of the fluorescent lights, which seemed extremely loud without all the sounds of humanity to muffle them.
“Here,” Nathan said. He turned, walking into a small room, where a heavy green curtain shielded the occupant from view. He pushed the curtain aside, revealing Beverly’s owner. I gasped. I couldn’t stop myself.
Machines surrounded the sleeping man, connected to him by a variety of tubes and wires. A clear plastic tube snaked out from under the covers; they’d catheterized him at some point, probably when they realized that he wasn’t going to wake up enough to take care of his bodily needs. I recognized most of those tubes and wires from my own stay in the hospital after my accident. I’d been wired up just like that when I first woke up. But this man was behind warning signs, in a room all by himself. They didn’t expect him to wake up, ever.