Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "By midmorning another man had died"
Source: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
When Elsa woke from a too-brief rest to checked on her patients, three of them had gone. The young woman and her two sons. Departed. Moved on. By breakfast, the old man—Andrew, the librarian—had passed as well, and by midmorning another man had died—someone Elsa had not met prior to his panicked arrival at her clinic, the night before.
Elsa lifted the smaller of the two boys' bodies and lay it beside the larger. It was already cool, but still supple. The two bodies fit easily on one gurney. Elsa had delivered them both as babies. Two years difference in dates of birth, plus or minus some months. Same date of death. Elsa pulled a sheet over the bodies and wheeled them to the courtyard, where the winter air would buy her some time in the race against decay. She lowered the gurney and slid the bodies, first one, then the other, to the ground. They were accepted, silently into the company of six other bodies. Their mother's joined them minutes later.
The phone was still dead.
The people—the patients—they hadn't come all at once. Not all together. Just as they didn't leave together.
The first to come was the woman with two little boys who cried. The bigger one sobbed and complained in words. The smaller one moaned and sometimes screamed. They both coughed red stains onto their mother's skirt. She coughed red into the handkerchief that she also used to wipe her sons' red-snotty noses. The smaller boy's diaper was heavy with red and his skin lost color even in the time that it took Elsa to place a line and start intravenous fluids.
Those first three patients—the mother and her two boys—they got the two units of almost-expired type-O blood that the hospital in the city sent every two weeks to keep on hand for emergencies. They also got the plasma packs from the freezer. Later, when more patients arrived, Elsa regretted having used all of her fresh frozen plasma so quickly. When the power failed and she lost refrigeration though, she was glad.
After the mother and sons came a foursome of furnace workers. They stumbled. They had difficulty speaking. Couldn't answer her questions. Three men and someone that turned out to be a woman once Elsa had removed multiple layers of personal protective equipment. They were all febrile and dehydrated and one of the men collapsed on the floor of the waiting area. While Elsa tried to place an intravenous line in his arm, he died in a pool of what issued from his mouth and nose and anus. The woman vomited and the vomitus was black and red. The other two men sat down on the floor. Those four workers were the first to die. First the one man, then the other two, and finally the woman. All within two hours of their arrival.
When Elsa had finished moving the fourth of those first bodies to the courtyard and had cleaned up the mess in the waiting area, she visited the little boys and their mother. All three were asleep. Elsa tried to call the hospital in the city, but the line was busy. She tried the security office at the furnace. There was no answer. While she waited, with the receiver to her ear, listening to a throbbing sound that represented the distant ringtone, the connection died. After that, when she picked up the receiver, there wasn't even a dial tone.
Andrew, the librarian—also the postmaster and the person who could get order liquor and medicines—arrived at sundown of the first day. He said there had been an accident at the furnace. Dried trails of red clung to his face below his eyes and his nostrils, and on his chin. He breathed heavily and he was pale beneath age spots. He asked Elsa what he could do to help.
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