Dr. Niebtork stepped through the slowly opening elevator doors. Ward F was in the east wing on the second floor, in an area that looked like it hadn’t been refurbished since the ‘70s. Room 13 was at the end of the hallway, with a small chicken-wired window blurry with age. The paper chart hanging in the frame outside the room simply listed “particle beam injury.” This was one of the only hospitals in the country where they still used paper charts. Less data leaks that way.
The EKG was back and hanging in the chart. Some sinus tachycardia, but nothing too weird. Blood count was normal too. Sometimes the hospital saw massive traumas from large scale accidents, but mostly it was for injuries that would just be too hard to explain to the public. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ward F was for the weird shit.
The ER note was crap. Just the phrase “Altered Mental Status” and an admission order—which of course the floor couldn’t refuse. Nobody got out without being debriefed anyway.
Noting that triage had probably forgotten to order a thyroid level, Niebtork rapped his freshly scrubbed knuckles against the door as he opened it and walked into the room.
The patient, a young man of eighteen with hospital-issued scrubs and an army-issue haircut was chattering nonsense and staring at a random spot in the middle of the room. Niebtork stepped into his eye line.
“Hi, Mr. Muller. I’m Dr. Niebtork. How are you feeling today?” He swung his stethoscope out from around his neck. He planned to make this an in-and-out visit.
“It was last Wednesday.”
“Oh… I’m uh… yes, but how are you feeling today?”
“Well I guess I was supposed to clear out, but no one told me.”
Niebtork set his stethoscope down and put his hand on the patient’s shoulder. “Well we certainly don’t need you to clear out. We’re here to help you.”
“It was my area to clean. I had snuck out the day before, but thought I could manage it before Monday morning.”
“What did you have to clean? Why did they bring you to the hospital?”
“I didn’t know they ran experiments on the weekends,” the patient said.
“No. There was no way to get out in time,” Muller said.
Niebtork leaned on his back leg and chewed his lip, deep in thought. He’d seen frank psychosis before. This felt different.
“Of course. The sirens were impossible to miss, but it’s a labyrinth down there.”
“I’ll be back soon Mr. Muller.” Niebtork said, leaving the patient to the conversation with his imaginary confederate.
He was walking down the dimly lit hallway, thinking about ordering Tylenol and aspirin levels when he got a text that confirmed the patient was found at the national photon beam lab. Maybe he’d order a heavy metal panel to spice things up.
He checked his coat collar, realizing he’d left his stethoscope in the room. Spinning on one poorly polished boot, he headed back down the long hallway.
He opened the door without knocking. “Sorry Mr. Muller, forgot my stethoscope. Say, when did this accident happen?”
Muller continued to stare distantly at him.
“Why were you at the photon beam test site?” Niebtork said.
More silence. An odd feeling came over the doctor. As though somehow he’d had this conversation before. Or at least half of it.
“Why were you inside the test chamber?” he asked.
Muller’s eyes were glazed over. As if there was no one else in the room at all.
“Mr. Muller, why on God’s green earth were you inside an active test chamber yesterday?”
Muller scratched himself, and shifted from staring at one ceiling tile to another.
“Why didn’t you leave once the testing started?” Niebtork asked, overcome with both frustration and curiosity.
Niebtork rubbed his thumb between his eyes and tried to figure out what this strange feeling meant. He wondered if the patient’s insanity was somehow catching—a Folie à deux. Then he had a dark and impossible thought.
Unlocking his phone, he pressed the record button and left it on the bedside table. He stepped out of the room, closed the door, and walked back down the fluorescent-lit hallway to the elevator.
A pause. A deep breath in and out. The world slowed down for a second.
He walked back to the room, stopped the recording, began playback, and held a question firmly in his mind.
The second he heard Muller begin to make a noise he blurted out his question “HaveYouNoticedAnythingStrange?”
“Actually yes,” the metered and tinny voice answered from his cell phone. “Everyone seems to be having a different conversation than I am. Talking to me, but not listening to anything I say.”
“That must be frustrating,” Niebtork said, a sense of triumph creeping into his voice. He looked down at his phone. It showed five minutes and seven seconds played on the recording. Impossibly, this patient was stuck 5 minutes in the future.
“It is,” Muller’s electronic facsimile answered, “I haven’t talked to anyone in days.”
Niebtork’s head began to swim with visions of published articles. He’d only be able to write about this in the classified journals, but all the same the excitement was intoxicating. He almost failed to notice the real Muller staring at him with an expression of horror.
“God, Doctor. Are you alright?” the real Muller asked him.
Niebtork stared at him, confused and with a returning sense of dark comprehension.
“Nurse! Nurse! Oh God. Someone help!” Muller screamed, staring now at the floor.
Niebtork felt a growing but inevitable pressure on his chest.
He stuck his head out the door and yelled “Nurse Teagan, call a rapid response team. Now!”
“Patient’s decompensating?” she asked, with the receiver to her ear.
“No Nancy, it’s for me.”
About the author:
William Kortbein is an active duty US Air Force Resident Physician in Psychiatry at University of Texas Health San Antonio. He enjoys board games, the guitar, and large amounts of unhealthy food. He lives in Texas with his wife, Marisa and their cat, Scout. Follow William on Instagram @hello_this_is_william or listen to him play music with his friends @ifbywhiskey