“Who knew a Code Silver isn’t when an old-timer tries to beat you with their walker?” Charles said as he double-looped his scarf around his neck.
I grinned at him as I pulled my gloves out of my pocket. “Technically, a walker’s still a weapon.” We’d been trapped in a cold, dark room watching safety-refresher videos all morning, an exquisite torture for nurses used to staying up all night. I wound up my scarf and pulled on a cap. “Why don’t we get any cool codes, Charles?”
“We do. Code Fur. Code Fang.” He patted through his pockets, maybe looking for his own set of gloves.
I hadn’t been in on any admissions since I’d been hired as a nurse at County a few months ago. But the vampires, weres, and other assorted casualties our floor catered to had to come in from somewhere. Not that the rest of the hospital knew that we kept vampire-exposed humans—daytimers—in our beloved County Hospital’s basement, but we must get advance notice somehow. I just wasn’t sure how that happened. There was a lot of information I wasn’t privy to yet.
I inhaled to ask another question, and then looked up at him. I could tell behind his scarf he was cracking a smile. “Awwww, you liar. Code Fang. As if.”
“Nurse Edie is Code Gullible.”
Charles laughed and held the building’s front door open. “After you.”
I braced myself and headed outside.
* * *
Winter air was like a slap in the face—the portions of my face that it could still get to. We were two days before Christmas, and the skies were bleak. My hairstyle had been hat head for what felt like weeks now, and I was swaddled up in my warmest coat. Between my own hips and the three layers of clothing I had on underneath my coat, I probably looked like a Jawa from the original Star Wars, only with blue eyes peering out.
Charles and I were going out to the Rock Ronalds for lunch. It was in front of the hospital on the next cross street down, and it was where our recently released patients would take their legally prescribed methadone to trade for illegal heroin and crack. I wouldn’t go there alone at night, not even the drive-through, but during the day with a male co-worker I felt safe—plus I desperately needed caffeine if I was going to make it through the afternoon.
“So what really happened, anyhow?” Charles asked as he double-tapped the signal-change button on the light post.
“Um.” I rocked up and down on my toes, watching the orange stop hand across the six-lane street. I knew what he was asking but I didn’t want to rehash the past, so I shrugged without meeting his gaze. “You know. I got stabbed by vampires. My zombie boyfriend ditched me on his way out of town. That sort of thing.”
“Yeah.” I inhaled and looked up. He was smiling again; it gave him crinkles around his eyes. Charles was a good nurse and maybe even a better friend, in a wholesome father-figure kind of way, if I’d let him be. He’d been working at Y4 for longer than I’d been alive. I couldn’t help but smile back. “We have advanced life support recertification coming up together in four months. Hit me up then.”
The light changed, and we both looked both ways twice before crossing the street.
* * *
The bell over the door of the ’Ronalds rang as we walked in, and a color-coded height sticker measured us as we passed through the door, just in case.
Charles ordered fries with a side of fries at the counter, and I took off my gloves to hand him money for my Diet Coke. I realized this was the first time I’d ever hung out with a co-worker outside of work. It was our lunch break, but still, it counted for something. I grinned at him as I returned from the soda fountain.
“Code Fang,” he said, and laughed. “You totally bought it.”
“Yeah, yeah, make fun of the new kid.”
“We don’t get enough new people for me to tease.”
“Maybe if so many new hires didn’t die—which no one ever told me, by the way—you’d get more chances.” I followed him to the nearest table and sat across from him.
“Would you have believed us if we told you?”
I drank a deep gulp of my soda and considered this. “Probably not.”
“For the record, I told you not to go back into that guy’s room.” He glanced meaningfully toward my left hand. It had a semicircular scar across the back of it, from where I’d been bitten by a vampire. It didn’t ache, except for when it was cold—which, since we were in the depths of winter, was all the damn time.
I rubbed at my scar. “If in the future you have a choice between blatantly warning me about possible death, versus vaguely warning me in a smug fashion, please go with the former.”
He nodded. “Duly noted.”
At my last job my biggest fear was being coughed on by someone with active TB. But at County, particularly on floor Y4, where Charles and I both worked, the opportunities to screw things up and maybe get killed were endless. Floor Y4 catered to the supernatural creatures that no one else knew about: werecreatures in their mortal phases, the daytime servants of the vampires, the sanctioned donors of the vampires, and shapeshifters that occasionally went insane. And sometimes zombies, whom nurses occasionally dated, with poor outcomes. At the thought of my now twice-dead love life, my urge to make small talk chilled.
Across from me, Charles was starting in on his second cone of fries. Funny how knowing exactly what a ton of salt and fat could do to your heart didn’t stop you from wanting to eat them. Like nurses who worked in oncology and still smoked. Charles watched me watching him eat, and tilted the cone toward me. I waved away his offer—it still felt too early to eat, my stomach was on night shift even if I was awake—and he shrugged.
“You sure you don’t want to talk?”
Charles measured me as he polished off the fry cone. “Here,” he said. He wiped his hands on his napkins, then opened his coat and reached for his shirt buttons.
“What are you doing?” I whispered, and glanced around to see if other restaurant patrons were looking.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Three buttons down, he started pulling the fabric out and away from his neck. “Seven years ago. Were-attack. Shattered my clavicle. I couldn’t lift my arm over my head for six months.”
I couldn’t see anything; it was shadowed by the clothing he’d bunched away to show me. But I believed him that the scars were there. Even if they didn’t show—they were there. I shook my head. “I’m not showing you mine. Just trust me, it looks like I got a C-section from an epileptic.”
Charles released his collar and straightened his shirt. “That sucks. But on the plus side, at least you didn’t wind up needing to start a college fund.”
“True, that.” I helped myself to one of the loose fries on his tray.
“So now we’re scar-buddies. Right?”
I nodded quickly, a little ashamed at how badly I wanted Charles and me to get along.
“Then listen to me, Edie. What I’m trying to say is this—I remember how it was to be you. All excited about the adventure—it’s not a safe way to be. You have to protect yourself. You have to remember that to them, we’re disposable.”
I didn’t need to ask who them was. Them was the vampires that’d tried to kill me. And also the zombie boyfriend who’d needed to leave town. I’d felt pretty disposable then. The new scars didn’t help me to not feel like that either.
“So no heroics. Be safe. I want to keep you around.”
I was genuinely glad someone unrelated to me did. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” He finished his soda and stood. “Let’s get back. Only five hours of films to go.”
* * *
We bundled up and pressed outside again. “What do you think the next film will be?” I should have gotten a Diet Coke for the road. Maybe then the need to pee would keep me awake through class.
“Ignoring Ebola: One Thousand Ways to Die,” Charles suggested. “Or Mr. Radiation, Uncle X-Ray’s Spooky Friend.” He did a little cartoon dance, and I laughed.
“I liked the one where they explained how to evacuate the hospital by taking people down the stairs one at a time.” I wasn’t even sure Y4 had stairs. I’d only ever taken the elevator in and out.
“God. If we did that, it’d end up being some sort of horrible Hurricane-Katrina thing. Some people would get left behind, others’d make bad choices. If it ever gets that bad, I’m staying home.” Charles hit the button to change the intersection’s light, and I decided to press my luck.
“So tell me about the were attack?”
Charles kept his eyes on the light across the street, but I could see him squinting into the past. “Ask me when we have advanced life support recertification. We can trade war stories then.”
There was a man with tufts of white hair sticking out from under his snow cap six lanes across from us, pacing back and forth. At first I thought he was just trying to stay warm, but as he moved I could tell by his bearing that he was angry. The traffic between us slowed as the light changed. Charles and I stepped off the curb at the same time as the other man did. We were across half a lane when a truck that’d seemed to be slowing down for the red light sped up instead. I heard the engine shift gears, looked up, and saw the man coming toward us do the same.
It hit him.
He crumpled forward against the hood, arms out, like he was hugging it in a moment of game-show triumph. Then it launched him into the air. I stopped in the middle of the road, stunned, unable to believe that I was actually watching someone fly. He made an arc, landed, bounced, and skidded to a stop, smearing red behind himself.
Half a second for the impact to occur, another half a second for the landing, and then the sound of screeching brakes as all other rightful traffic through the intersection came to a halt—except for the truck, which kept going. It missed the man’s landing body by inches, and drove away with his blood in its tire treads.
“Jesus Christ,” Charles said, and started to run for the injured man. I ran after him.
Copyright © 2012 by Erin Cashier