The Infirmary

by Jessica Higgins

Before I even open my eyes, I know I am not where I am supposed to be.

To begin with, the bed beneath me is an actual mattress; springed coils support my back, my legs, the undersides of my arms, and a pillow cradles my neck and skull—the effect is strangely off-putting after so many months of sleeping on a rigid board with only a balled up coat as my pillow. With my fingertips, I trace the smooth softness of the sheet that blankets the mattress, and I inhale the unmistakable scent of death: stale urine mingling with the aroma of medicines and cleaning products. The attempt at sterility burns my nostrils.

I detect the faint beeps of machinery, the sound of running water in some distant room, and the squeak of someone's rubber-soled shoes on tile, but the prevailing sound is silence. In the distance, someone babbles incoherently, and closer still, someone cries out in anguish. I lie still with my eyes closed, dreading opening them to confirm what my other senses already knew: I am in the "infirmary."

Everyone knows that the infirmary is a place where you die, mostly because we have never known anyone who went there and returned. We see them leave the building, yes, but they are hauled out in wooden carts, the sort that people used to use to haul firewood or coal, but are now only familiar to us as the means to transport the dead; often, these bodies are nude and sometimes stacked upon others. Naked limbs lack the same neat precision that cut wood once had, but either way, it doesn't matter—they have the same purpose as coal or firewood and they are all headed for the same destination: The incinerators.

Only a few of us have ever been inside the buildings that house the ovens, those of us unlucky enough to have the job of loading, pushing, and unloading those dreadful carts, but we all work within the shadow of those smokestacks, so we needn't go inside to understand the hellish interior. Lying here in this bed, pressing my forearms and chest against the leather constraints that bind me to this hospital bed, I know that my own destination will ultimately be those ovens, and as I continue to lie with my eyes closed, I picture the yellow and orange flames that will lick the flesh off my body and turn my bones to dust. I am not panicked by this thought when I hear the rubber-soled shoes come to a stop nearby.

"Would you like a drink of water Mrs. Stein?"

I open my eyes and stare up at a young woman who can't be much older than me—I turned 17 last March, eight months ago now— and this young woman before me can't be much more than 20, maybe 21. She repeats her initial question, and even though my mouth is parched and my throat burns for the relief of water, I shake my head "no." I don't want whatever poison she has to offer. Even though no one has lived to report on the happenings within the infirmary, we are all familiar with the rumors, the tales of torture, abuse, experimentation. I have no clear idea what they will do to me while I am here, but I understand that they will test the boundaries of my 17 year old body with needles, and drugs, and scalpels, and whatever other instruments of torture they will use in the name of science and medicine.

Then, my body will give out, the results neatly recorded by this young woman, and I will be carted out, naked, to the oven where I won't need water anymore.

The young woman frowns at my refusal of water, but then she reaches behind me to fluff the pillow and smooth the sheet. "Well," she says in a chipper voice, "if you need anything Mrs. Stein, please don't hesitate to call for me. I'll be in the hall or next door in Mrs. Greenberg's room." I nod silently and watch her disappear through the door and into the bright lights of the hallway.

Why does she call me 'Stein?' I wonder once she's left. I am no "Stein" and am certainly no one's missus. After a moment, I shrug the discrepancy away, and now that my eyes are open, I take in my surroundings. I lie with a thin, paper gown covering my body, and a lightweight sheet and blanket cover me to my chest. The leather straps I felt before, around my wrists and my chest, are visible only as outlines beneath this bedding, but again, I gently tug at the restraints, and it's clear that I am bound to the metal frame of this bed. I don't want to wear myself out by pulling at something that I know won't give; besides, I am weak from months of malnutrition and hard labor, so I save my strength and instead lift my head slightly off the pillow and try to observe as much as my hungry eyes can absorb.

The room is mostly white: white tiled floors, white walls, white baseboards, white countertops, white blinds cover a square window, and lastly, the ceiling overhead is white. I suppose that white makes the room more sanitary, but I wonder why they bother when everything else I have seen in this place is either gray or brown so that it matches the color of the winter sky and the smoke that often billows overhead. One would think that all this white, when one is used to so much darkness, would be refreshing, but instead, it feels like an assault on my eyes, and I close them again for a moment to rest. With my eyes shut, I drift back to the days that must have preceded this one and I try to recall what incident could have brought me inside, to the infirmary. At first, my memory is fruitless in recalling anything of recent significance; this is no surprise since I squeeze my eyes shut most nights and try to forget where I am. Such willful amnesia is often helpful— I think of my life before, my family's home, my bedroom, my cat Sasha, school, my friends, the boy I had a crush on; I also think ahead to my life in front of me, I have decided that I will move to America, I will marry, I'll have 2 children, 1 boy and 1 girl, my husband will be a doctor, maybe we can have another cat— this escape into either the past or the future helps block out the unbearable weight of the present, and ultimately, it helps me sleep what little I can each night. But now, I must force myself to think of the here and now so I can understand how I have woken up in this place, how it is I have been stolen away from the barracks with the wood-planked beds, my mother, my two sisters, the cold air and the warmth of their slight bodies against mine.

I was sick. Fever. Vomiting. Diarrhea. I had lost even more weight, and my ribs protruded through my papery skin. My mother looked at me with somber eyes, even though she tried to smile and help me walk to and from the labor we did in the yard. Dysentery. That's what they called it. That's what has brought me here. Dysentery. I silently sound out the word in my mind. Dysentery will not kill me, not while I'm in here; it's just the means that has brought me to this end.

Quietly, I feel a tear slide down my right cheek.

Not realizing that I have again fallen asleep, I wake with a start, feeling disoriented by the very things I took the time to familiarize myself with before. I open my eyes and confirm that I am in the same white room, with the same bedding, the same paper gown, the same acrid smell permeating my nostrils. Through the slats in the blinds, I can distinguish that it's still daytime, but how long did I sleep? An hour? A day? A week? Time has dissolved in this space. Again, I hear the squeak of rubber-soled shoes as they come walking down the hallway, but this time they are followed by another pair of shoes, a sharp clicking on the tile. Heels. A woman's heels.

They stop in the doorway just outside my room and I can hear their low whispers, but I can't distinguish their words. What I can distinguish is the hushed urgency of one voice and the plaintive plea of the other: They are arguing about something, but it's a restrained argument. Are they discussing me? Arguing about me? My questions go unanswered as I strain to listen amid the other sounds that drown out the tones of each speaker. Soon, their conversation comes to an abrupt halt as I hear another set of shoes approach. These shoes make hardly a whisper against the hard, white tile, but the weight of the walker is heavier than the other two, and I hear a low, masculine voice in the silence left by the wake of the other two women.

The doctor.

My heart seizes on me and panic grips my veins. I try to pull up against the restraints; this time, I pull with all the strength I have, I save nothing. There may not be a later. I wriggle my body back and forth and try to shake myself free of this bed, this place, this nightmare. Just then, all three disconnected pairs of shoes and their accompanying voices hurry into the room.

The young nurse who I saw earlier throws a clipboard down upon the counter nearby, and she places both hands on my upper arms and tries to still me. The doctor, in his white coat and stethoscope around his neck, hurries to my other side, and places the tips of his warm fingers against my temple. In the background, hovers another young woman, she looks to be older than the nurse, but isn't yet 30 by my own quick assessment. She has a paralyzed look of horror on her face and her hands are raised in front of her mouth to try and hide some of her shock. I can't fathom who she might be or what she might want, but any questions I may have about her, or the others, are soon vanquished as the nurse pulls a syringe from her pocket and holds my arm down as she injects the needle's contents into my veins.

Darkness envelops me.

When I awake, groggy and disoriented, the young woman, who had previously remained in the background, now sits in a chair next to my bedside. I feel her hot fingers entwined in my own. Her eyes are sad as she watches mine open, but she smiles a weak smile at me. Who is this girl? Why does she hold my hand? She takes her free hand and gently smoothes some stray hairs off my forehead, and no matter her reasons for being here, in that brief moment, I melt into the comfort of such a compassionate gesture.

"Nana?" She asks.

I just stare silently at her. I don't know who she's addressing.

She sighs, and I can smell the peppermint on her cool breath. She begins again, "Are you alright?"

I still don't know why she is addressing me so, but to please the young woman, I mutely nod my head in assent.

She smiles faintly. "I'm so sorry that you have to have these restraints. I argued with the nurse that you don't need them, but they say it's for your own safety. Apparently, you've been scratching at yourself in your sleep at night." As she says this, her warm fingers trace a groove in my left cheek and I am suddenly aware of a stinging there that I hadn't noticed before. She is quiet, contemplative for a moment, and then she turns to take the glass of water off the countertop, the same glass of water the nurse had previously offered me.

"Would you like a drink?"

I can no longer deny the burning in my throat, and so I again nod "yes" and the young woman lets go of my hand and gently lifts my head up as she presses the cool glass to my lips. I drink thirstily and the water tastes so good it almost hurts. I feel it slide down my raw throat and into the pit of my constantly aching stomach. It fills me. Satisfies me. I no longer care if it's poisoned; I don't want to be thirsty anymore.

She turns and sets the glass down, and at the same moment, I hear the soft shuffle of the doctor's leather shoes. He enters the room with hardly any noise, but still, I feel him disturb the quiet air that had previously felt like a protective bubble around me and this unknown woman. He smiles at me, and seems to address me directly.

"Well, Mrs. Stein, that was quite an episode earlier, but I hope you're feeling better now."

I stare blankly at him and return his words with my own defiant silence. He shrugs slightly and maintains the same stiff smile that he entered the room with. Inside my chest, my heart beats wildly in anticipation. The doctor turns to face the young woman at my bedside.

"Ms. Blackburn, I'm sorry you had to witness that earlier. I know it may seem as though we're treating her cruelly, but it's really for her own safety, as well as our own."

Seemingly adopting my example of muteness, she nods silently and he continues.

"See, we think that Mrs. Stein's dementia has her believing that she is back in..."

He trails off, but I am listening raptly, still confused about whom they are discussing—their English is so fast that I think, perhaps, I am missing some key to the conversation.

The young woman says nothing; she just stares expectantly at the doctor.

He hesitates, then asks, "Is it possible for us to discuss this in the hallway?"

She pats my hand as she lets it resume its former place next to my side, and she stands, smoothes her skirt and follows the doctor into the hallway. From my bed, I can only make out their low murmuring, no distinct words, but after a moment I do hear a sharp intake of breath, a gasp. A moment later, I hear the doctor's soft leather shoes shuffling along the hard tile as he retreats down the hallway; the young woman pauses in the doorway of my room, her eyes wide with shock as she meets my own gaze. I can't comprehend her anxiety, but I note her visibly straighten her spine and relax her shoulders in attempt to resume her former posture. She returns to the chair at my side and again enfolds my hand in her own.

I feel her soft palm press against my own. I look down at our interlaced fingers, and suddenly my own horror sets in: Her skin is taunt and olive-toned, her long fingers taper off into rounded fingernails painted a dark red; but entangled with her own youthful hands are the knobby, blue-veined hands of an elderly person. The nails are ragged, the skin nearly transparent.

I look up into her face, my mouth open in what must be an audible scream, but all I hear is a long, hollow silence.

BIO: Jessica Higgins was born and raised in Colorado, but she currently resides in South Florida where she teaches English at Broward College. She lives with her husband and dog, and she is currently anticipating the birth of her first child in August.