The second I lay eyes on him, I know the boy is dead. The taut skin covering his ribcage is ash gray, a blemish on the stark white bed sheets. His mouth is slightly open, but he draws no breath; his tightly closed eyes show no signs of REM. It appears that the lad ceased dreaming some time ago.
Yet, in spite of what appears obvious to my trained eyes, his parents look at me as if I’ve come to work a miracle. I avert their beseeching stares and perform the unnecessary tasks of placing my stethoscope on the boy’s gaunt chest and feeling his wrist for a pulse that didn’t exist.
The parents are perched in standard issue hospital chairs beside his bed, holding hands, holding their breath. I shake my head “no,” mutely confirming what they already knew. Their denial bursts like a dam. I watch them break.
Feeling like an intruder in such a grotesquely intimate moment, I slip out the door. I hang a black ribbon on the doorknob as I leave, so the nurses will know to summon the coroner. I don’t take a break to compose myself, because the list is long and the unfortunate boy I left behind is the first of many children I will visit today.
In the months since the plague broke out, thousands have died. Attempts to contain the malicious juvenile disease have been fruitless. I’ve personally seen more than two dozen children perish in this hospital. My heart has been shattered so many times, there’s nothing left of it to hurt. I steel myself with black coffee in the morning and numb myself with rye whiskey in the evening. I dream that they stop dying and curse the reality of each new day.
I glance at my clipboard and head to Room 316.
Holly Gaskin bio bio bio.