“One, two, three, four, five six . . . ,” I counted quickly, jogging down one set, and then the other. When I pushed my way into the hallway of the first floor, David was already waiting at the elevator.
“Enjoy,” I said, tossing him the pager.
“Thanks, buddy. Have a good one,” he said.
The crowd I’d left behind in the elevator exited, walking as a unit down the hall, in tight formation, their voices low and nervous as they discussed the latest news on the outbreak.
“Code gray. ER one. Code gray. ER one,” a woman said over the intercom system.
Anita, the radiology manager, stood in the middle of the radiology hall with her arms crossed. Within moments, men from maintenance and from every other department scurried through the open double doors of the emergency room.
“What does code gray mean, rookie?” Anita asked with a smirk.
“Er . . . hostile patient?” I said, half guessing.
“Good!” she said, patting me on the back. “We don’t hear those very often.”
“Code gray. ER six. Code gray. ER six,” the woman’s voice called over the intercom. Her voice was less indifferent this time.
Anita looked down the hall of our department. “Something’s not right,” she said, her voice low. Julian, the CT tech, stepped out into the hallway. Anita waved him to the emergency room. “Go on!”
Julian obeyed, the ever-present bored expression momentarily absent from his face. As he passed, Anita gestured to the women’s locker room. “You better clock out before I change my mind.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” The keypad beeped after I pushed in the code, and then a click sounded, signaling me to enter. I walked in, noticing I was alone. Normally the room was abuzz with women opening their lockers, pulling out their purses, laughing and chatting, or cursing about their day.
As I spun my combination lock to access my locker, another announcement came over the intercom.
“Code blue, ER three. Code blue, ER three. Code gray in the ambulance bay. Code gray in the ambulance bay.”
I grabbed my purse and slammed the door, quickly making my way down the hall. The radiology waiting room was on my way, separated from the hall with a wall of glass. The few patients inside were still focused on the flat screen. A news anchor was reporting with a scowl, and a blinking warning scrolled across the bottom of the screen. Most of the words were too small to make out, but I could see one: EPIDEMIC.
A sick feeling came over me, and I walked quickly, on the verge of breaking into a sprint for the employee exit. Just as I opened the door, I heard a scream, and then more. Women and men. I didn’t look back.
Running across the intersection to my Suburban in the south western lot, I could hear tires squealing to a stop. A nurse from the third floor was fleeing the hospital in a panic. She was afraid, and wasn’t paying attention to the traffic. The first car barely missed her, but a truck barreled around the corner and clipped her body with its front right side. The nurse was thrown forward, and her limp body rolled to the curb.
My training urged me to go to her and check for a pulse, but something inside of me refused to let my feet move anywhere but in the direction of the parking lot.
Angie, the circulation nurse from upstairs, appeared in the doorway of the employee exit. Her surgery scrubs were covered from neck to knees in blood, her eyes wide. She was more cautious, dodging the traffic as she crossed.
“Oh my God, is that Shelly?” Angie asked. She rushed to the curb and crouched beside the woman lying lifeless. Angie placed her fingers on the nurse’s neck, and then looked up at me, eyes wide. “She’s dead.”
I wasn’t sure what expression was on my face, but Angie jerked her head forward to insist I respond. “Did you see who hit her?” she asked.
“I don’t think it’s going to matter,” I said, taking a step back.
Angie stood, and looked around. A police cruiser raced toward downtown. Other employees of the hospital began to filter out of the door, racing to the parking lot.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she whispered, pulling her scrub hat from her short blond hair.
“Your scrubs,” I said. A dark red streak ran down the front of her green standard-issue surgery scrubs. Her neck and cheek were also splattered with crimson.
“Mrs. Sisney flat-lined, and then woke up,” Angie said, her face red and glistening with sweat. “She attacked Dr. Inman. I’m not sure what happened after that. I left.”
I nodded and then backed away from her, toward the parking lot. Toward my Suburban. “Go home, Angie. Get your daughter and get the hell out of town.”
She nodded in reply, and then looked down at the blood. “I should probably just go back in. I don’t know how contagious this is. Kate’s with my dad. He’ll keep her safe.”
Her eyes left her blood-saturated clothes and met mine. They were glossed over, and I could see that she had already given up. I wanted to tell her to try, but when the faces of my own children came to mind, my legs sprinted to the parking lot.
I threw my purse into the passenger seat and then inserted the key into the Suburban’s ignition, trying to keep calm. It was Friday, and my daughters were already an hour away, at their dad’s for the weekend. Each possible route flashed in my mind. Scenes from post-apocalyptic movies with vehicles lining every lane of highways for miles did, too.
I pulled out my cell phone from my pocket and dialed Andrew’s number. It rang, and rang, and rang, and then a busy signal buzzed in my ear instead of his voicemail. “It just started,” I said quietly, putting my phone in the cup holder. “I can still get to them.”
I tossed my phone into my purse, gripped the steering wheel with one hand, and shoved the gear into reverse with the other.
A part of me felt silly. The logical side of my brain wanted to believe I was overreacting, but there was no music on the radio. Only breaking news about the epidemic, the rising death toll, and the ensuing panic.
The Suburban stopped abruptly, and I turned around, seeing Lisa Barnes, the employee-health nurse, gripping her steering wheel, her eyes bulging. I’d backed up while she was pulling out of her parking spot, and we’d crashed into each other. I pushed open my door, and ran over to her.
“Are you okay?” I said, hearing the subdued panic in my voice.
“Get out of my f**king way!” she screamed as she gripped her gearshift and threw it into reverse.