The ruttle of the bus hummed my ears as it headed north on Kimball. I could have walked to the library today, but as the April air was a little cold, I didn’t feel like a walk. I sat next to a younger kid wearing white earbuds. He was lanky. When I got to the library I did a bit of wandering. There was one rack that housed all the holds. I put my desired book on hold using the library website late last night, but doubted the book would have made its way to the hold section yet. It didn’t. I went to the fiction wall (after making a circle of the entire library) and quickly found the book I was scouting. There was a little confusion when I went up to check it out. I told the librarian I had it on hold. I’m pretty sure she asked if I wanted to keep it on hold. I had the book it my hand. I think it was pretty clear that I wanted to check the book out. I think there may have been a bit of a language barrier going on.
I left the main hall with the book now in my backpack. As I walked toward the glass door, a woman and her young daughter were walking in. I extended my arm and held the door open as the lady and girl ceremoniously ducked under and through. I made it to the bus stop, where the orange dot-matrix light on the shed told me the next bus would arrive in 3 minutes. There were already 9 or 10 folks waiting for that southbound 81. It’s obvious that people can’t tell the future. Because if any of them could, they would have run as fast as they could have in the other direction.
A pigeon swooped by, a puppy barked, and a lime green 1972 Cadillac Eldorado careened into the bus stop no slower than 45 miles an hour. There was twisted metal and glass everywhere. Some shards were sticking out of the faces and arms of the commuters. I was far enough away that nothing happened to me- minus the shock of witnessing all the mayhem. There was blood. There was moaning. I sat down on the curb and took my book out, reading the first few paragraphs before the bus came to pick us up.
I thought about letting the injured people on the bus before me, but to be honest, they were taking a really long time to get moving, so I edged my way to the front of the line and onto the bus. One young girl had an obvious compound fracture of the arm, so I was very careful not to bump into her as I passed her up in the line.
I grabbed a seat right away. Some of the limping commuters were forced to stand, but hey, you snooze you lose. There was discussion between some of them about where the nearest hospital was. The bus was heading south on Kimball, barely passing Argyle. I believe the closest emergency room was the other way, north, back on Foster Avenue near where this whole mess began. I didn’t want their hopes to be dashed though, so I didn’t volunteer this information.
About 15 minutes later, there was a good amount of blood slushing around the brown plastic corrugated bus floor. The banged up people had seemed to elect a leader. With her one healthy hand she was holding up her cellphone and looking at a pixelated map. If they could just make it as far south as Belmont, they could take another bus east and go to Illinois Masonic Hospital in Lakeview. There was some murmuring among the crowd, but a general tone of approval. The group of injured folks were kind of loud, and I lost my place in my book twice. Even the bus driver would glance back from time to time with a judgmental glare.
The bus glided to a stop at Belmont, adjacent to the Blue Line train station. The banged up men and women crowded their way off the vehicle and onto the sidewalk. I slid out the side door to follow them. Their leader, for lack of a better word, stood encircled by the others. The map program in her phone concluded that, if they were to take the Belmont bus east, they could get themselves to Illinois Masonic in 24 minutes. As some of the kids didn’t have enough money to take another bus, the 8 of them decided to walk there, which was going to take them just over an hour according to maps, but more than likely closer to two hours given their condition. They could only move as fast as the slowest person, who was missing the lower half of his right leg and rightfully bleeding profusely.
They started their black and blue parade eastward for about 10 minutes before they were stopped by a policeman riding his mountain bike.
“What are you guys doing here? You’re making quite a mess of the sidewalk,” the cop said, climbing off his bike. His squared shoulders broadcast the chilly air of authority.
“We were just in a horrible accident and need to get to the hospital.” said a lady whose left eye was protruding slightly from its socket.
“Not like that, you’re not.” said the cop firmly. “You need to get yourselves in order. You can’t just walk around all banged up like that. It’s hideous.”
“Well, I’m not sure what you’d like us to do. We’re in a jam, here, officer.”
“Don’t any of you have a car, or more appropriate, some kind of truck with an interior that can be hosed down easily?”
“Not really,” explained the 15 year old girl with white bone visibly sticking out of her arm. “We really could use some help.”
“Well,” said the cop, “I guess I’ll let you off with a warning this time.” The officer pulled a yellow pad out of his bike pouch. But get off the main street and take side-streets. You guys are unsightly and the traffic is slowing down to gape.” He finished scribbling on his pad, ripped off the top sheet, and tried to put it in the hand of the girl with the fractured arm. She held out her relatively healthy opposite hand and gingerly took the paper from him.
“Now you folks get along!” The cop jumped back on his bike and zipped away.
The group started walking again, heading south on Albany Avenue in compliance with the wishes of the policeman for them to stick to side-streets. Gradually the storefronts and brick buildings gave way to smaller bungalow-style houses and green grass. The person with half a leg collapsed in a heap due to immense blood loss. The man with the glass sticking out of his face tried to pick up the downed fellow with little success.
“Can somebody grab his leg and stump, and I’ll get his shoulders?” A younger man in his twenties who was missing an ear, but otherwise good-to-go, agreed to help carry the new amputee.
An older couple was walking a tiny white terrier a few meters away. When they saw the mass of disfigured, bloody people, the couple quietly crossed to the other side of the street.
The pace of the group began to decline and it seemed as if they were never going to make it to the hospital. Just then, the woman with the protruding eyeball spotted a tall blue utility van parked in a thin driveway a few doors down the street. They discussed the option of asking the owner for a ride the rest of the way.
They all agreed that the young girl with the compound arm fracture was the most presentable of the group, so she was elected to go to the front door and see if the van owner was home, and if so, if he’d help them out.
The girl lifted her good arm and dipped her opposite shoulder to reach the dirty gold door-knocker. “Clack… clack… clack”
After a few minutes, it appeared that nobody was coming to the door. The girl pivoted on her ankle and started heading back to the sidewalk when the door opened swiftly. A middle-aged man wearing a tight green golf shirt and khaki pants stood in the door-frame. “Hello!”
“Hi,” said the girl, slowly turning back around. “We’ve been in a horrible accident and need to get to the hospital. Is there any way you could… take us in your van…please?”
“Well, of course,” said the man much to the joy of the group, who were in dire need of any and all joy they could get their scraped up hands on. “Give me a minute to change, and I’ll be right out. Here are the keys. Let yourselves in and get comfortable.”
The man handed the keys to the girl and walked back into his house leaving the front door open.
The back doors of the van opened smoothly to reveal a few small crates, perfect for sitting. The group helped each other into the van. The woman with the protruding eye pulled the doors shut behind them. It was a bit warmer in the van than it was outside, where the sky had just begun to produce very small light snowflakes.
The van owner came back outside donning a black and red hoodie and hopped behind the wheel. “Ok! So, where are we heading?”
The whole group, as if on cue, chanted at once the nine syllables: “Illinois Masonic Hospital”.
“Well, it seems that you’re all in agreement about that, so let’s do it!” The man turned the engine over and began tooling up Albany back to Belmont. The main streets would be much faster.
“Thank you very much for helping us out,” said the girl with the compound fracture. “Yes! Thank you,” added the man with the glass shards jutting out of his cheek and forehead.
“It’s my pleasure. Once when I was young and living in India, I myself was in a horrible accident and a kind stranger saved my life, so I feel a particular duty to help out those in need.” He then began to whistle an uplifting tune which floated oddly above the sound of slushing blood from the back of the van.
Almost 20 minutes later, the red “Emergency” sign of the hospital came into view. “This must be you guys,” said the driver.
He pulled the van up to the ambulance port and the lady with the protruding eye-ball worked to open the back doors. The man with half a leg was still passed out (or possibly dead) so they carried him through the automatic sliding doors and into the hospital. The man with the van asked if there was anything else the group needed.
“No thank you. You’ve done plenty already!” said one of the ladies. The man drove away, letting out two quick beeps of his horn.
There was nobody around the admittance desk, so the girl with the broken arm ambled deeper into the hallway to find help. There was nobody in the hallway either. As they would discover over the course of the next half hour, the hospital was completely devoid of people. No nurses, no doctors, no patients. The lights were on, all the medical apparatus were in place, and the Coke vending machine humming. There was simply nobody anywhere. Anywhere.
“Well, what are we supposed to do now?” said the man with half a leg, surprisingly becoming conscious again. The man with the glass in his face said “I guess we’re just going to have to operate on ourselves.” They found a gurney against one of the lime colored walls, and maneuvered to get the man with half a leg on top of it. The silhouettes of 7 broken people pushing one broken person on a gurney disappeared into one of the elevators.
The doors slid closed, and the young girl mused at the buttons. “Try 4.” said the woman with the protruding eye-ball. With a light tap of her finger, the circle surrounding the number 4 lit up and the carriage began to ascend. The speaker on the elevator ceiling softly played a plucky piece by a string quartet. Nobody spoke.
The doors opened and the painted letters on the wall proclaimed “Neonatal Intensive Care”. There was a quiet pause. “Try 7.” groaned the man on the gurney whose face was as white as the sheets below him before they were soaked crimson by whatever blood he still had left pumping through his body. The doors shut and the elevator again began to rise.
The doors slid open on the seventh floor, revealing the words “Accident and Emergency” in block letters on the wall. The man with the glass in his face looked at the woman with the phone and nodded in agreement. The sad gaggle slid out of the elevator, tugging the man on the gurney behind them.
“Ok,” said the woman with the phone. “This guy is in pretty bad shape,” she said, pointing at the amputee. “Let’s fix him up first.” They wheeled him into a white room, where there was a large and bright dome light, illuminating a long buffet of seafood and greens on a long narrow table. The girl with the compound fracture went to work.
She took a lobster claw off a pile of ice and began to slowly scratch numerals on the amputee’s forehead. The man let out a peaceful sigh.
“Oh, that feels much better. Yes. That’s good.” The color slowly began to return to his face. The girl, using her good arm, took a sliver of meat out of the claw and fed a bit to man. He was almost back to normal. The woman with the protruding eye disappeared from the room in search of crutches for the man.
“Ok,” said the woman with the phone to the girl with the compound fracture. “You’re next”. The man with the glass in his face approached the buffet and quietly surveyed his options. Shrimp. Scallops. Cottage cheese. Spinach leaves. Yes. The spinach leaves would have to do. He snatched a handful of the leafy greens and turned to the young girl. “This might hurt a little bit” he said, looking at the snow-white bone jutting out just above her elbow. He turned her around and lifted up the back of her shirt and rubbed the small of her back with the spinach very deliberately, all while keeping a sharp eye on the second hand of the large clock on the wall of the operating room. 43. 44. 45. “Ok. That should do it.”
The young girl’s expression changed to that of uncontrollable joy. She turned around and carefully gave the man with the glass in his face a big hug, making sure not to upset his own wounds.
The woman with the protruding eye was next in line. “I got this,” she said, and walked to the end of the buffet table where there were two large silver pots of coffee. She filled a styrofoam cup with steaming tan liquid from the pot marked ‘decaf’ and placed the cup on the operating room floor. She then took off her left shoe and rolled off her sock, dipping her painted toes into the hot coffee. She looked up at the woman with the phone, narrowed her eyes, and bobbed her head in near ecstasy. It was working. Yes. It was working well indeed.
The man was the glass in his face had been waiting patiently for his turn. He approached the buffet without hesitation and plucked a pair of shrimp from the ice. Clasping the tails, he slipped one shrimp into each ear. These were jumbo shrimp, mind you, and it took a little bit of work to make sure the seafood was secure in his ear canals. He let go a deep sigh and then shivered briefly as if he had just been hit with a bucketful of refreshing water. “Oh yeah. Much better,” he said, a little louder than necessary.
The young man who was missing an ear was helping the amputee get used to his crutches and almost forgot he himself needed treatment. He looked at the stretch of seafood, greens, and the like, but couldn’t make up his mind about how to precede. After all, what the hell did food have to do with remedying a missing ear? He’d seen it work with the others, so, maybe it was possible? Still a bit skeptical, he admitted that he wasn’t sure about the whole thing.
The woman with the phone smiled to herself, but waited for the young man to make up his own mind. After a few minutes, she went and stood next to the cottage cheese. She pointed down at the bowl then looked up at the young man, who stood several inches taller than she.
“Ah, okay.” The young man scooped up a handful of the creamy white chunks and paused.
“Aaand….” the woman with the phone prompted.
The young man’s eyes tracked the eyes of the woman with the phone. He slowly brought his hand up to his face, and then going higher, held his hand directly over his closely cropped hair, the color of chocolate wood. He gently palmed the cottage cheese. The whitish liquid dripped then streamed out of his fist and onto his scalp. The young man with the missing ear squeezed his fist, and the bits of cottage cheese began to squeeze out onto his head, too. The man began to weep. He was healed. The amputee crutched his way over and gingerly put his arm around the young man and began to sing a guttural version of Amazing Grace. After the last chorus, the amputee and the young man together washed his hands in the operating room sink.
Only the woman with the phone was left. It was unclear to the others exactly what her malady was. She was not bruised. She was not bleeding. She wasn’t even limping. The girl that previously had a compound fracture was trying to remember where this lady was at the bus stop when the car smashed into them. She remembered the lady with the phone was on the other side of some sort of glass. Was she on the outside of the bus stop enclosure? Like finally naming a mysterious tune running though her head she suddenly realized that the lady with the phone was driving the green Cadillac. She remembered seeing her through the glass of the Eldorado’s windshield moments before it smashed into the crowd of people that she had become so close to over the previous few hours.
The muffled sound of heralding trumpets came from the woman’s coat pocket. She took out her phone and the horns became clearer. As if she were an orchestra conductor, a swipe of her finger across the face of the phone brought the music to an end.
“Hiya!” the woman chirped. The others watched but could not hear the other end of the conversation. “Yes… Yes…. No…. Yes.” The woman listened intently. “Yes, I’ll tell them.” she said. “I’ll tell them everything”.