This week’s prompt words are:
chloroform :: banana split :: stench :: cracker :: shoestring budget
A distant boom rattled the phials on the dispensary shelves and started the lights swinging in their fittings, flickering as they went. One more hit like that and we could probably kiss our power supply goodbye. The stench of smoke and dust hung in the air like a veil, giving the stink of death and disease a run for its money. I adjusted my facemask, settling it more closely over my nose, and carried on with my rounds.
‘Doctor!’ I heard, from somewhere behind me. ‘Doctor!’ I turned in time to see a young, familiar-looking orderly come sprinting towards me, dodging cots and outflung limbs and puddles on the floor with a practised stride.
‘Come on, Jesse,’ I said, as he drew near. ‘You know I’m no more a doctor than you are.’ I tried to keep my voice down. If there were conscious patients nearby, they didn’t need to hear me confirm any suspicion they might have that this whole place was being run on a shoestring budget, by people who were making it up as they went along. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be conducive to their attempts to recover. Before the war, I had been a scientist of sorts; it made me the best person they had for the job, but it didn’t make me a doctor. Just like putting an ungainly pile of injured and dying people into what had once been the refectory of the long-dead convent didn’t make it a hospital.
‘Whatever,’ Jesse hissed as he drew near. ‘You know what I mean, Elias. Will you just come with me?’ He barely gave me a chance to nod before we were off, tearing between the corridors of beds like we were playing one of our boyhood games.
‘What is it?’ I said, when we reached the corridor. There were patients lying here too, the stronger ones; their beds were further apart. Jesse and I had some space to talk. I pulled down my facemask to focus on my friend.
‘It’s the child,’ he said, his eyes heavy. ‘He’s awake, but he’s delirious. He’s calling for his mother, and for Johanna – we presume his nurse, or a maid. He keeps telling her to make him a banana split, whatever that means.’ I took a deep breath, and thought about how long it had been since any of us had seen a child. If his house hadn’t been shelled, I might have lived the rest of my life without clapping my eyes on one. But we didn’t have time to think about that now.
‘Let’s go,’ I said. Jesse led the way as we hurried up the dimly-lit corridor, the tiles running with damp, and covered in filth and condensation.
‘Has he been told about his family?’ I asked as we walked.
‘No,’ replied Jesse. ‘As I said, he’s not fully conscious. He thinks he’s still at home, from what we can gather. And – well, look. You know about the chloroform?’
‘No,’ I said, a sudden chill coating my lungs. ‘What about it?’
‘An orderly used up most of what we had left on an elderly woman this morning,’ he muttered. ‘She didn’t realise our stocks were so low. I haven’t told her yet what she’s done.’ My mind raced. It stood to reason the orderly wouldn’t know how bad things were. Nobody did, besides Jesse and me.
‘God,’ I said, realising. ‘But we may have to operate on the child.’ Jesse didn’t answer me, but he didn’t have to. In any case, there was nothing he could say. He threw me a sympathetic glance, shaking his head slightly, and I pretended not to see the tears in his eyes. We redoubled our pace, and within minutes a nurse was leading us to the child’s bedside. A fire blazed in the grate of his room, and the sheets on his bed were old, but cleaner than anyone else’s. As clean as we could make anything, these days.
‘Why are they pulling crackers?’ the boy muttered as we drew near. His eyes were closed, his colour high. ‘Tell them to stop pulling crackers, Johanna.’ His face was slick with sweat, and his wounds were bandaged. Even without examining him, though, I could smell that our attempts to stop his infection hadn’t worked. He was going to need surgery, and there was nobody to do it but me. I glanced up at the nurse, whose worried eyes told me he knew what I was going to say.
‘We’ll have to prep the surgery room,’ I said to him, in a low voice. ‘Round up everyone we can find to try to keep this child alive, and scour this whole place for anaesthetic. I don’t care where you get it.’ The nurse nodded at me before glancing up at Jesse; then, he hurried out of the room. My eyes fell on the child’s face again. He glowed in the firelight. As I knelt by his side, stroking his hot, clammy head, a tiny frown wrinkled his forehead, and he licked his dry lips. He opened his eyes, red-rimmed and sore, and gazed straight at me without recognition. He blinked, once or twice, before his eyes drifted closed again.
It wasn’t until I felt Jesse’s hand, his strong fingers, resting on my shoulder, that I realised I was crying. I hurried to wipe my face as the nurse bustled back into the room.
‘Doctor,’ he said, out of breath. ‘We’re ready to begin when you are.’