(Rainfall)

My hand won’t stop bleeding.

 

The letters cut into the back of my palm must presumably still be there, beneath the napkin rag, beneath the slick of wet blood and dry blood. But I can’t see them, and the pain has become something more universal, an ache of confusion in my hand and head and stomach.

 

I collapse into the gutter in a kind of sitting position, my hair still wet and dangling over my face, my nostrils still stinking of the Fish Market - and I retch.

 

I’m still there when the ambulance comes for me.

 

***

 

I don’t remember the journey; all at once, I’m horizontal, gazing up at the ambulance doors as they swing open before my toes, and the gurney is rattling down onto the cobblestones, turning back in towards the darkened buildings.

 

I get a split-second glimpse of Eskew, golden and shining, beneath corniced rooftops.

 

That’s something, I think, or murmur, or hallucinate. That’s really something. I’ve ended up in the nice part of town.

 

The very modern sign over the very dilapidated stone entrance reads,

 

Hospital of the Blessed Saint Bartholomew.

 

Not somewhere I’ve ever been before.

 

***

 

I’m left in a ward room. It’s the kind of freakishly gentle space that’s been precisely decorated and arranged in order to have a calming and therapeutic effect on in-patients. The walls are a very precise shade of soft violet. The paintings are all watercolours featuring bridges over rippling, whirling tides. A small corkboard discreetly advertises softball tournaments and bereavement services.

 

The only effect of the room, as far as I can see, is to give all twelve of us in-patients, lying in our own private agonies and moaning and sweating, the collective sense that we are somehow too fleshy and messy and painful to be allowed to remain in a space as soothing as this.

 

There are no windows.

 

I lean forward, trying to get a sense of the room’s exit points without disturbing the translucent tubing running from my wrist into a heavy-looking IV bag hung beside the bed, which presumably does something.

 

The old man next to me gives me a cheerful smile.

“Scared, boy?” he says, in a thick Eskovian accent.

 

I tell him that I don’t like hospitals, that’s all.

 

He chuckles phlegmatically through his beard.

 

“I like it here,” he says. “Nurses always fussing over me. Plenty of people to talk to. Always something going on.”

 

He waves vaguely in the direction of the corridor.

 

“I’ve been sick for twenty years,” he tells me, “and for all that time I’ve been lonely and lost. Couldn’t get a job. Couldn’t make a friend. But once they admit you - that’s when you’ve got ‘em licked. They have to find a place for you, they have to find you a diagnosis and a robe and a bed. No more uncertainty, no more confusion. Day and night, you have your purpose, and your purpose is healing.”

 

He claps me on the shoulder.

 

“Congratulations,” he says. “You’ve been blessed.”

 

And it seems like such an odd and preposterous thing to say that I wonder if I’ve dreamt it, particularly because he then rolls over and farts and mutters something about mushroom goulash.

 

I close my eyes, and feel the throbbing pain rise and fall over my heartbeat.

 

When I wake up, I have been awarded a clean white gown, a pair of comfortable fluffy slippers, and all of the patients in my ward seem to have been replaced.

 

The old man has gone; a heavy-set man is lying in his bed, occupying the same hollow among the duvets, eating salt-and-vinegar crisps and giving me an incurious look.

 

“Congratulations,” I tell him sardonically, and I roll over, and go back to sleep.

 

***

 

In the morning, the nurses come for me.

 

They are neither firm nor gentle, but somehow give the sense of an unstoppable, besieging tide, moving with such smooth, gliding certainty across the floor that you find yourself powerless to resist.

 

Dressed in mint-green scrubs, their hair shaven monastically back, both men and women wear a knowing look of superiority upon their faces.

 

I am allowed to piss...or perhaps I should say that I am pissed, milked like cattle, a passive witness to my own ablutions.

 

My teeth are brushed. I am fed mango slices and chaff from a miniature cereal box.

 

My wound is undressed. The raw flesh, spiked with hairs, stings as it’s exposed to the air of the ward. I’m encouraged to hold it out, as if presenting it to be kissed.

 

Then the nurses part, and a doctor is standing before me.

 

I have the vague sense of a kind of higher predator, something existing in the food chain of the hospital above the nurses, with round thick spectacles and a beaming smile and a face that’s as curiously blank as a surgical mask, overhanging a long white coat with black trim.

 

One of the nurses, as if appointing herself the spokeswoman for the group, offers,

“Nasty cut on his hand.”

 

“Burn unit,” a voice says aloud from behind the mask of a face.

 

The nurse replies, uncertainly,

“Doctor, we think it might be a cut, rather than a burn-“

 

The doctor keeps grinning, but there’s a sudden ripple of fear from amongst the nurses, and the one who’s spoken up flinches back, as if she’s been stung.

 

“Burn unit,” she repeats, and a moment later the others follow suit, nodding nervously to each other like starlings, echoing the refrain:

 

“Burn unit. Burn unit.”

 

My fate has been decided, and even as I attempt to mount a feeble protest, the nurses are already gathering around me, unfurling their rolls of gauze, one of them winding it out across my hand, over and over, crossing my arm, moving up towards my shoulder, even as a second party works their way up from my toes along my naked legs, and a third detachment comes for my throat and head and face, rolling the gauze out, thickening with every pass across my body-

 

I am permitted a slit for my mouth, a single breathable gap in the bandages, and only one strip of the thinner gauze is passed over my eyes, allowing me to see.

 

The rest of me is bound up, thick and stiff beneath the gauze, my limbs forever stretching out, my back and neck corrected and straightened.

 

As the nurses stand back to admire me, I feel a little like a doll or a mannequin that has been dressed in new clothes, strangely shrunken and somehow removed, as if they’ve placed me up on a shelf.

 

Every movement is hard, like this. Every muscle strains against its wrappings as I attempt to move it.

 

They load me up onto the gurney, and I’m taken to the Burn Unit.

 

***

 

The Burn Unit is, of course, on the fourteenth floor. Eskew so often brings me back to the fourteenth floor.

 

The nurses wheel me into a darkened ward, park the gurney up against a bed, and unceremoniously roll me over until I’m facing upwards again upon the mattress.

 

They attempt to tuck me in, but I am awkward and over-sized in my bandages, and so in the end they just drape the bedsheets over my torso, leaving my arms and legs still jutting out.

 

Then they leave me there.

 

The door swings shut.

 

It takes me some time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the ward, particularly beneath the confining veil of the gauze, but I immediately have the sense of the great length of the room, stretching out before me. There’s a breeze, too, suggesting windows.

 

Rather less immediately, I get the sense that there are a great number of people in this room. A multitude of silhouettes, shifting their weight upon their beds, or on the floor.

 

Soft violin music is playing from somewhere unseen.

 

‘Who’s the new meat?’ someone calls out in Eskovian from the darkness.

 

‘I don’t know,’ someone shouts back. ‘I don’t recognise him.’

 

There’s a certain amount of laughter.

 

It doesn’t sound entirely sympathetic.

 

‘My name is, my name is David Ward-‘ I begin.

 

‘English,’ someone else shouts back. ‘We’ve got another English.’

 

My eyes are improving. Gradually, sitting upright in my bed and peering out, I have a sense of who the people are surrounding me.

 

Mannequins. Blank-faced, stiffly-positioned mannequins, their arms and legs outstretched, their heads as white and empty as a doll’s beneath the bandages.

 

Every person in this room has been swaddled in gauze.

 

Like me.

 

One such figure turns from the bed opposite me, awkwardly clambering down onto the floor on its stumps of outstretched arms and legs, and begins to crawl towards me across the floor of the ward in absolute silence.

 

For a split second, it vanishes. And then suddenly there’s a head at the foot of my bed, a blank white gauze face staring up at me.

 

I don’t scream. I’m not sure it’s allowed.

 

Then there’s the distant sound of the elevator, and approaching footsteps.

 

The figure before me flinches - and then scuttles away across the floor on all fours, taking up position behind the door.

 

It turns back towards me, and raises a single bandaged arm to its bandaged face.

 

I suspect it may be trying to raise a finger to its lips.

 

The door swings open - and light floods the room.

 

There’s a nurse stood in the threshold, walking purposefully forward, clutching a batch of towels.

 

A moment of absolute silence. And then someone yells,

‘Alone! He’s alone!’

 

The bandaged figure leaps - frantically grappling with the nurse, trying to use its stiff arms as both bludgeon and garrotte, and as the man cries out in surprise, there are other ghostly-white gauze-covered men and women lurching across the ward towards the action, hobbling on crutches or scurrying across the floor, kicking and stamping, venting their fury with shrill animal cries-

 

I stay in my bed, and watch.

 

Once the nurse is no longer struggling or making any noise at all, the patients reconvene, forming into an orderly procession that shuffles the twitching body back past me, along the floor and out of sight.

 

There’s the distant sound of a cupboard door closing.

 

One patient stays behind, using the bandages on his feet to mop up the few traces of blood that are visible in the light of the doorway.

 

Then he, too, leaves, and everyone is back in their beds, pretending to sleep.

 

I remain upright on the mattress, waiting to see what happens next.

 

A moment later, a voice comes floating out of the darkness.

 

‘You should rest,’ it says. ‘If the nurses come in force and see you awake, they’ll give you a little something to help you sleep. It isn’t pleasant, I can tell you that.’

 

I don’t quite move. Not just yet.

 

‘I’m sorry you had to see that,’ the voice says. ‘Don’t worry, we aren’t going to hurt you. You’re one of us now, and we take care of our own. We’ll fill you in on how things are really run here at the Blessed Saint B.’

 

I hesitate - and then lay myself down flat against the bed, resting the gauze shell of my head upon the pillow.

 

‘Good,’ the voice says. ‘My name’s Jakoby. I’m in charge here.’

 

***

 

During the following day, and in the days to come, the patients of the Burn Unit begin to accept me into their fraternity.

 

As all of us are wrapped in gauze, and none of us can see each other’s lips move, our conversations tend to be collective and collaborative rather than any kind of dialogue; when we begin to reminisce about our favourite foods, or the friends and family we’ve left behind, different voices floating gently up from beds on all sides of the wards, overlapping and merging with each other:

 

‘Soft shell crab, my God, if I ever have sushi again-’

 

‘He was sweet, such a sweet man, and before the fire we promised that we’d see each other on the bridge, and do the thing, you know, the thing with the padlock-’

 

‘Five down. Does anyone know it? Eleven letters. The clue is “Mayhem, piping hot”.’

 

It’s an undisturbed kind of peace up here.

 

The nurses come rarely, and when they do, they usually come in force, marching in through the ward doors like a phalanx, with a grinning doctor at their head, who arrives at a bed and peers down at one patient or another, before announcing, simply,

 

‘Cured.’

 

And invariably that poor man or woman begins to tremble, shaking their stiff bandaged limbs and trying to wriggle away, insisting that they are not ready yet, that there’s still much to be done, but then the nurses fall upon the patient, peeling back the gauze layer by layer, their fingers flurrying on every side, until there’s a naked human in their grasp, sobbing and struggling as they’re placed onto a gurney and drawn back away through the ward doors, never to be seen again-

 

I can feel the impotent anger from the beds all around me whenever this occurs, my comrades shifting on their mattresses and almost, not-quite rising to show their defiance and protect the nurses’ victim...and when the patient is lifted from their bandages, fresh and healed, like a moth from a chrysalis, I can feel that anger turn to something like pity, and revulsion.

 

No matter what happens next, the victim, once unwrapped, will never be one of our faceless order again.

 

Aside from that, we’re rarely bothered. And for the first time since I arrived in Eskew, I begin to feel…

 

...relaxed is not the word.

 

I begin to feel comfortable. My bed remains warm and soft no matter how many nights I remain sleeping in it. The company remains amicable, and relaxed, and the conversation is just varied enough.

 

There’s a dumbwaiter at the far end of the ward room, that sends up a fresh meal every hour, upon the hour. Sometimes breakfast, sometimes lunch, never in any kind of order.

 

It’s always delicious, in a mushy, over-salted school-dinner sort of way.

 

Whenever the food arrives, Jakoby nominates the patient whose turn it is to eat. Nobody ever questions his decision.

 

A number of us have suggested that whoever serves the food into the dumbwaiter is a secret ally of ours, somewhere in the hospital, someone who’s sympathetic to our cause and is ensuring that we continue to receive food no matter how badly we misbehave.

 

Jakoby says - and I tend to agree with him - that it’s more likely the dumbwaiter is simply some machination of the Blessed Saint Bartholomew that is stuck in its own steady, soothing rhythm, uninterrupted by human action, unbothered by anything outside of itself.

 

Jakoby says a lot of things.

 

‘This place is a paradise,’ he tells me, his soft voice emanating from one of the beds around me. ‘It’s safe, it’s stable - and we’re cared for. If it wasn’t for the doctors and nurses trying to drag us back out, the Blessed Saint Bartholomew would be a perfect place for all of us to hole up and enjoy the rest of our days.’

 

‘What do they do,’ I ask, ‘to the patients they cure? I mean, where do they take them?’

 

Jakob barks with laughter.

‘Where do you think?’ he says. ‘They give them back their clothes and toss them back into Eskew. Just exposed again to all of that. Well, we say that if being cured means going back out into the city, then staying uncured is the healthiest state we can be in. That’s why we resist.’

 

The small, defiant resistance of the Burn Unit is conducted through acts of both aggression and self-mortification.

 

Sometimes it’s the patients who harm themselves, peeling back their own scabs or tugging open their own stitches, to disrupt the healing process and send the nurses scurrying for morphine and a mop.

 

Sometimes, it’s the nurses who suffer, whenever any of them is foolish enough to step into the ward by themselves, and find themselves being viciously beaten down in a sea of bandaged fists.

 

I tell Jakoby that this seems like a battle that can’t be won; that the Blessed Saint Bartholomew will always produce more lumbering nurses, more bespectacled, black-coated doctors. That its industry of healing cannot simply be halted.

 

He just laughs.

 

‘We have an ace in the hole,’ he says. ‘Someday soon I might even show it to you.’

 

***

 

Jakoby’s promise comes true later that week when I help capture a doctor who’s foolishly strayed into the unit alone.

 

This has never happened before, as far as I know, and as the crutches rise and fall, spattered with blood, over the man’s twitching fingers and crumpled spine, there’s a real feeling of shock as well as elation amongst us, a frisson of ‘what happens next?’ excitement and anxiety flickering like electricity through the air between us.

 

I don’t contribute much, just kicking anxiously with my bandaged foot a couple of times into the doctor’s ribcage, but my friends move to either side to give me space, and that’s a nice, comradely sort of feeling, and Jakoby notices it, because I feel his bandaged stump of a hand pat against my back, and his soft voice says,

 

‘Help us carry him.’

 

We can’t carry him, precisely, not without working fingers, but we propel the doctor along the smooth tiled floor with our stumps of hands and feet, until we reach the fire exit.

 

A few of us crawl like beetles, surrounding the main procession, offering a kind of low insectoid honour guard.

 

The doctor rolls and bounces down the staircase, his head thumping off every step, until we reach the floor beneath us and turn a corner.

 

‘This floor’s empty,’ Jakoby whispers into my ear as we bang through the double doors into the darkened corridor. ‘They had some outbreak here years ago, and never opened it up again. Said the sickness was still lingering in the air here. Even the doctors don’t come through. Well, *we* say that if we grow sicker, that’s all for the better for us. The further we are from being well, the safer we’ll be.’

 

I don’t entirely agree with his logic here, but it would seem uncomradely to break away now, and so I keep walking in step with the rest of them, down through the empty hall, shuffling the unconscious doctor ahead of us, perfectly loyal to the group.

 

Then we’re walking down a second, industrial set of steps, and through a thick steel door, and into a vaulted room.

 

Most of this place is lost in shadows; the far wall, however, is furiously lit in crimson and gold by the fires of a colossal rusted boiler, its griddled door blasting prison-bar silhouettes onto the cracked tiles beneath it.

 

We gather nervously in the light, a small delegation of swaddled, faceless figures, unable to check each other’s expressions for signs of confidence or of fear.

 

Jakoby’s voice, coming from one of us or, perhaps all of us, echoes through the room.

 

‘Unheal him.’

 

And then all at once we’re rushing towards the boiler, lifting the black iron pokers that have been laid out invitingly before it, grasping the handles in our swaddled palms and driving their ends into the depths of the infernal heat until the metal warps and turns ashen-orange…

 

The doctor lies upon the floor, mostly-compliant and babbling softly to himself, and it’s only when the brands sear against his face and the skin of his chest beneath his torn shirt and coat, twisting the flesh, mortifying, changing…

 

...it’s only then that he remembers again to scream.

 

It’s a little like turning marshmallows over a campfire, as children. Each of us gathered around the doctors, jabbing our pokers into his skin until it boils and blackens and changes, searching for a square of unblemished flesh that hasn’t yet been altered, perfecting our art as we go…

 

And then Jakoby’s voice cries out,

 

‘Enough!’

 

And we step back from the steaming, squealing doctor, with something like dissatisfaction at a project that will never quite be finished.

 

‘We come,’ Jakoby intones, and I have the sudden peculiar sense that he is no longer speaking to any of us, but to something else, something that’s with us in the furnace room. ‘We come bearing sickness to feed sickness. Wounds to heal. The injured to make you whole.’

 

And we all repeat, as if it’s been taught to us,

‘Sickness to feed sickness. Wounds to heal. The injured to make you whole.’

 

We have all, quietly and thoughtlessly, shuffled back towards the steps and the door, leaving the maimed doctor writhing alone on the tiles.

 

The darkness moves.

 

And something enormous shifts forwards, something fleshy and wrinkled with the folds of a dozen different half-naked bodies, rolling forward like a colossal pale millipede beneath the combined balance of a dozen different hands and feet.

 

My friends from the Burn Unit are chanting,

‘Graft. Graft. Graft.’

 

I take a step back.

 

I am gaping, I think, beneath the bandages. I wish I could see that the others were gaping as well.

 

The thing is already huge; almost spherical. The bodies making up its component parts have no sense of unity to them. I can see a softly-moaning nurse, someone I recognise from my arrival, half-swallowed into the very height of its mass, besides a pair of protruding pink feet and a single grasping hand, and as it rolls forward across the floor, top becomes bottom and I am staring into a different set of horrid, wounded faces.

 

It must be blind. It has no eyes, no mouth, aside from those of the victims making up its flesh. Some feet have shoes. Some hands are lacking fingers.

 

The Graft rolls forward, and as it reaches the doctor, it dips forward, its hands gathering him up, absorbing him face first into its mass until his screams are muffled and his legs and arms are feebly kicking, his shirt and coat tearing to reveal new flesh that conjoins with the greater mass of the colossal creature.

 

‘He’ll learn to be more cooperative,’ Jakoby says, from somewhere amongst us. ‘He’ll have to, if he wants to feed.’

 

I almost ask, ‘What is it?’ but that seems like a question that’s both hopelessly obtuse and impossible to answer in the face of such a thing, so I correct myself to, ‘What is it for?’

 

‘The Graft is composed of sickness,’ Jakoby replies, calmly. ‘We bring the doctors and nurses down here, we inject them with a nasty virus or we break them in some new imaginative way - and we add them to the greater whole.’

 

The Graft, now that it’s fed, seems a little lethargic, even disjointed in its movements - dancing back and forth across the floor on its multiple hands and feet.

 

‘When we take the hospital,’ Jakoby says, ‘the Graft will lead the charge. This is something they can’t cure, can’t stick a band-aid on and declare ir well, because the sicker it grows, the stronger it becomes.’

 

He turns back to the crowd, and declares in a voice that demands applause, ‘And if worst comes to worst and the battle is lost, we’ll join with it, and gladly, too...because so long as we’re unhealed, they can’t ever make us leave.’

 

There’s a ragged cheer from amongst the assembled patients.

 

MMy feelings of comradeship have, in the past five minutes, become somewhat diminished.

 

I think I know that I will not be staying to watch Jakoby’s revolution play out. I will not watch his creature roam the corridors of the Blessed Saint Bartholomew, nor will I, even as an ultimate act of desperation, allow myself to be absorbed into its fleshy, awful whole.

 

Paradise is not guarded by a creature like this.

 

I will wait until it’s my turn to be examined, and pronounced healthy and whole, and then I will leave the Burn Unit behind and head back into Eskew, where, at the very least, I have an apartment to go back to and recordings to make.

 

For now, I smile from behind my bandages, and cheer along with the rest of them, and chant the name of the Graft more loudly than anyone else.

 

***

 

Unfortunately, after the disappearance of the doctor, the Blessed Saint Bartholomew seems to cotton on to the fact that something is wrong. Perhaps it was willing to accept the sacrifice of its worker insects, but bridles at the atrocities committed against its higher tier of soldiers.

 

The doctors and nurses keep coming. There’s no end to them.

 

Their visits to the Burn Unit become more frequent and more obviously militarised, half-a-dozen nurses piling in at once around a single doctor, all of them falling upon a single bed, pronouncing the patient cured no matter if she slits her arm open with a dinner knife or tears her own scabs loose from her face, yanking the bandages free and dragging her from her bed, forcing her fresh clothes back onto her as the blood spreads over her T-shirt-

 

I can see from the window that there is a small but noticeable pile of bodies littering the street outside the doors of the hospital.

 

The discharged, I suppose you’d call them.

 

Jakoby begins whispering that the time is coming when we will take the hospital for ourselves, seize control of every floor, find whoever’s in charge of it all.

 

He seems to have decided, apropos of nothing, that if we can make it to the twenty-first floor at the very top of the building, we’ll encounter some kind of hospital director or senior administrator, a higher level of being than either a doctor or a nurse, and if we can only put a stop to it, then the mechanisms of the Blessed Saint Bartholomew will fail and we’ll finally be left to our own devices, paradise won.

 

The other patients in the Burn Unit no longer make conversation, or read out crossword clues. They mortify themselves instead, obsessively crouched over their own wounds in their own beds, finding new and inventive ways to make themselves unwell.

 

I, too, have abandoned thoughts of comfort, and have become resolute.

 

Jakoby has mentioned to me, in his friendliest voice, that some of the others have been asking why I’m not doing the same.

 

I think it’s time I left.

 

***

 

One night, in the dead of the night, I make my move before Jakoby can make his.

 

I slip out of my bed, through the unit doors, as silently and as swiftly as I can.

 

I hurry down the fire exit, carefully skirting the abandoned thirteenth floor, sliding in through the twelfth floor’s darkened corridor until I find a toilet, and lock myself in.

 

I have grown clumsy without the use of my fingers. It takes an agonisingly long time to even begin unwinding the stiff gauze from my hands, and my teeth strain and click painfully as I bite down, yanking the bandages free with my mouth, trying my best to avoid the safety pins.

 

My left hand is only partially free of its bindings when my absence is noticed in the Burn Unit.

 

I can hear the slamming of doors. Voices raised, from my fellow patients;

 

‘-they took David!’

 

‘The bastards! They didn’t even give him a chance to unheal himself-’

 

And Jakoby’s voice, booming over it all,

 

‘That’s the last straw! Grab your crutches - we’re doing this, my friends, we’re doing this tonight.’

 

I stay still in my locked toilet stall, behind a fragile partition door, listening to the footsteps hammer down the staircase.

 

Let it all play out, I tell myself. Let it all play out without you.

 

When it’s all settled down, I begin to unwind the bandages again.

 

About five minutes later, the screaming begins from the thirteenth floor.

 

Then the doors bang again - and I hear the awful chittering clatter of many hands and feet on the concrete, a chorus of softly moaning voices passing right beside the wall and then climbing the staircase.

 

The Graft is free, I can only assume.

 

Someone is shrieking, in a voice of absolute horror that makes me wince,

‘It’s loose! It’s loose! It got Jakoby! Oh, god, it got Jakoby-’

 

Then the screaming begins on the fourteenth floor, muffled from above me.

 

I’ve entirely freed one arm, and am just working my way along another, when I hear the fire doors thud, and footsteps rattle, and more distantly, perhaps on the fifteenth or sixteenth floor, the screaming begins again.

 

The Graft is exploring the corridors of the Blessed Saint Bartholomew.

 

I get the bandages off my face, working quicklier and more urgently now with my stiff, pale hands, the blood surging back along my fingers.

 

Then my legs and feet.

 

People keep pounding up and down the stairwell outside the toilet, shrieking at the tops of their voices. I do my best to ignore it.

 

The gauze pinches and stings, and my skin feels peculiar against the open air, but at long last I’m free and I step back out into the toilet, gazing at my own bewildered face in the mirror.

 

I’m still in the hospital robe, but at least my friends from the Burn Unit should no longer be able to recognise me for one of their own.

 

I wait at the doorway for a second, but the stairwell seems to have gone quiet, and so I step out, glancing first down to the floor below and then up to the floor above.

 

This is a poor choice.

 

The Graft is standing in silence at the top of the stairwell above me.

 

It’s considerably larger than the last time I saw it. Its flesh has been distended with new bodies, some of them wrapped in bandages, others naked but for the ragged hospital gowns.

 

It has no eyes of its own, but I am quite certain that it’s looking down at me.

 

I stare at it, for a split second - and then I turn, and run.

 

Barefoot, pattering down the staircase two steps at a time, listening to the awful slap-slap-slap of its many hands and feet as it rolls and careens down the stairs after me, bouncing off the walls, and the closer it gets, the more certain I am that I can hear my friends from the Burn Unit, Jakoby’s soft voice amongst them, calling out for me from within the folds of its flesh.

 

David...David...they’re all in here with me, David...

 

I fling myself over the bannister, praying that I land on my feet on the stairwell below, expecting to hear the snap of my ankle or to feel my knee buckle beneath me-

 

-but then I am still running, and suddenly I’ve run out of stairs, and I push through the ground floor of the Blessed Saint Bartholomew as the Graft’s hands and feet scrabble behind me, and I’m dashing through the reception, out through the sliding doors, into the rain and the cold of Eskew, my bare feet slapping against the cobblestones, my gown whirling in the night breeze, laughing at how good the air feels on my skin, how good the rain feels upon my cheeks, not looking back, never looking back again.

 

***

 

 

It does not surprise me to read, the following morning, that there’s been a fire at the Blessed Saint Bartholomew Hospital, in the northern heights of the city.

 

Apparently the blaze spread from a furnace room on the thirteenth floor, and was carried upwards, consuming everything in its path.

 

The surviving doctors and nurses are treating the injured as best as they can. Their work, the article says, must go on. It never ceases.

 

I toss the newspaper to one side, head into my little apartment kitchen, and see about making myself some breakfast.

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