By Sylvia Ketchum
Images floated across the back of my eyelids. Posies. Red, orange, and some pink. I’d gathered a bouquet for my mother, tying it together with string. I was a boy dancing in a field of wildflowers. My limbs bursting with boundless energy. The sun beating down on my face. Barefoot. Dried earth stuck between my wee toes.
“It’s been over three weeks,” a nurse’s voice echoed from across the ICU room.
“Remove the ventilator,” the doctor responded.
“Should I prepare the family?”
The mechanical beeping stopped.
An assistant wheeled me down a long hallway, out the front entrance, and into a makeshift tent erected in a field behind the hospital. “Patient overflow,” he’d said in passing to a colleague.
There were other patients cocooned beside me, walled off with white plastic sheeting, and sealed with velcro. Irregular breathing and an occasional death gasp surrounded me.
I must be in hell.
I faded out…
The world was spinning. I danced in a circle with childhood friends, our hands clasped, and our faces smiling towards the heavens.
“Pocket full o’ posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”
Laughter rang in my ears as I lay stretched out on the summer grass, counting clouds in the cerulean blue sky.
Where am I? Is this a dream?
The scene looked vaguely familiar as I replayed the memory, but I couldn’t quite place it. The sweet smell of newly thrashed hay filled my nostrils. A crooked little farm off in the distance beckoned. And the clucking chickens soothed me. A past life?
A curtain pulled back. A tug on my arm. Cool fluid in my veins.
The wooziness seeped in…
I find my father lying face down in our wheat field. Swollen buboes on the back of his neck. Putrid skin cracked open and oozed sticky yellow pus.
“Pa! Wake up!” I screamed.
A raven cawed above me. A bad sign.
I flipped him over. Black spots covered his face. His fingertips black with gangrene. The edges of his mouth crusty with scabs. His lips parted; a brackish odor discharged, and he spoke no more.
I ran to the farmhouse for help.
“Ma!” I cried.
I found her slumped over a chair, clutching her crucifix in prayer. She tilted her head up to greet me, necrosis on her nose. She shook her head, no.
The black plague.
The squeak of clean tennis shoes on linoleum sprinted by my makeshift hospital room. I tried to open my eyes, but they’re glued shut. Eyelashes stitched together with dried mucus. Am I blind?
An irregular drumbeat rattled against my ribs, protesting. As my heart slowed, I felt myself disconnect.
I hovered above my body…
Another lifetime flashed before me. Images reflected in fragments of broken glass that danced about me like a kaleidoscope. I focused on one, then another. Fleeting moments of pain and joy. My mother cradling me in her warm arms. A grade school teacher holding a ruler, its sting on my knuckles. My first love. Soft brown curls surrounding her round face. A sweet smile upon her lips.
I was a soldier. The First World War on the Western Front. In the trenches. Covered with mud and dried blood. My best mate’s eyes stared lifeless towards the foreboding sky. I held him in my lap, not wanting to let go. I cursed, and then I cried.
I earned a medal of honor for acts of gallantry.
Married my sweetheart in the town’s church.
A year later I lay in a steel framed bed drowning in my own phlegm. There’s a chorus of coughing followed by a sporadic death rattle. Grown men plead for their mothers, then they go quiet. Nurses load them onto stretchers, their faces purple and lips blue. Every two to three hours, they’re replaced with another feverish patient.
Am I next?
The 1918 influenza pandemic
A hellhound lurked in the corner of my hospital room. It’s larger than any dog I remembered. Teeth bared. Saliva dripping from its curled lips. The cruel eyes are alert but eternally patient. It guarded a tunnel of brilliant light. And waited.
“Go away, demon,” I whispered, but my lips didn’t move.
Its gaze shifted, calculating its prey. An eerie growl reverberated off the walls. The dog’s ravenous desire to please its master is evident in its stubborn stance.
“I’m not going with you,” I tried again.
Its feral eyes met mine.
I stood firm. “Go away.”
The black dog lowered its head, and then left, whining.
My body lay motionless, other than the labored breathing.
The pain is gone.Am I dead? No.
Cries echoed somewhere off in the distance. I followed the sound and appeared before my wife. Standing in front of the garden window, she wept, her tears falling into the kitchen sink. She lamented about the dying tree we planted right after our first daughter was born. Our plans to travel to Spain after my retirement. And being banned from visiting me in the hospital, afraid I’d die alone. I whispered in her ear, “Please don’t cry, baby. I’m right here.” But she couldn’t hear me. See me. Or feel me.
Our eldest daughter appeared by her side, patted her on the back. “Don’t worry, mama. He’ll get better. Have faith.”
Bells, whistles, and rapid-fire lasers came from the rec room. My two grandsons played a video game. Sandwiches and potato chips scattered on the coffee table. The cat curled up on my favorite Lazy Boy chair.
Why aren’t they in school?
Photos hung in the hallway. My parents. Me as a child. And my wedding to Marta thirty-seven years ago. This is my current life. I started to remember bits and pieces. But as I reflected my life’s deeds both good and bad, a luminous thread pulled me back to my body.
Floating above it, I stared into my tired face. When did I get so old? I pondered cutting the cord, to free myself from this earthly bondage. But the face of my wife resurfaced to my consciousness, her pain overwhelming me. I couldn’t leave her. Not yet.
I rolled back into my body, headfirst. The heaviness overtook me.
The irregular heartbeat steadied, and then slowly gained strength.
Footsteps approached. The rustle of plastic overalls. The squeak of heels on scoured flooring. A tap on the IV drip.
I’m not alone.
Adrenaline surged through my veins. I willed my body to move. An index finger shook and the pulse oximeter fell to the floor. My heart pounded in my chest like a caged animal, and a warm tear trickled down my cheek. I tried to scream but only a wheeze escaped.
My lungs engulfed a bucket of air, lapping it up hard and fast. Oxygen filled my bloodstream and my head began to clear. I remembered. My name is Jason, a meat packer for twenty-nine years, and a pending retirement this coming spring. I collapsed on the assembly line. I assumed I had the virus, but if I didn’t show up to work, I’d be fired. The company didn’t offer personal protective gear. A risk I had to take.
I wanted to live. Embrace my golden years. And finish that kitchen remodel!
I made a weak fist, peeled open one eye, and let forth a low groan.
A face appeared wearing an N95 mask, goggles, and a plastic face shield. The eyes darted around as he poked and prodded, searching for signs of life. He pried open my eyelids, wielding a flashlight.
“Get the doctor! This one’s going to make it,” he said, his voice muffled behind his protective gear.
A smile crept up the corners of my mouth.
I’m not going to die this time.
(Bio: Sylvia Ketchum is an avid reader, writer, and consumer of gluten-free snacks. She resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and her pet cockatoo, Karl. She was previously published in the Deluge Literary and Arts Journal.)