Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images of disease
I am dying. I know that. The knowledge is an icy finger running down my spine.
I am being consumed by the dread plague that has swept mercilessly through our camp, has killed so many of my companions. Fever is burning me; it is a fire that rages under my skin and burns me. My head is being squeezed with a vise and a hammer is pounding behind my eyes. Pain wracks my joints. It feels like someone is injecting acid into my knees and elbows and fingers and spine. I cannot endure it.
But neither can I find relief. I cannot even scream; I can barely moan.
I struggle to breathe. My lungs are destroyed and I gasp for air. When I can draw a breath, it is foul with the reek of blood and death and filth. I loathe it. I loathe this disease. I want to die.
No. Not that. I want to live. I am desperate to live. I am young; I have my whole life before me. And that life will end here, on this cot.
Not even a bed—there are none left—but on this dirty cot on the floor between two beds. It still stinks of its last occupant. Through the haze of pain, I see a nurse walking toward me.
“Water,” I try to croak, but no sound comes out. My lips barely move. I can no longer keep my eyes open. The nurse bends at the far end of the cot. I feel her tie something onto my toe, then she straightens and pulls the thin sheet that covers my ruined body till it also covers my head. I want to scream that I am not yet dead, that I am still among the living, but I cannot. I cannot move, cannot speak. The thin cloth over my nostrils makes the already arduous task of breathing near impossible. I am not dead yet, but I soon will be.
The thought makes me want to weep like a child.
Then I feel myself being lifted. The sudden motion makes my stomach lurch, but there is nothing left in it to come up, not even bile. I am carried unsteadily for an eternity. With each step, I can feel my life draining. I imagine a trail of it on the floor behind me, like blood.
Then I am dropped. I do not think they meant to do so, but they did. The pain is unbearable. My joints burn. My head throbs. My lungs pop like fat in a skiddle. Please God, let me die.
Yes, I have nothing but agony here now. Let me die.
Footsteps approach. Something lands on me. It is large and soft and excruciatingly heavy. It must weigh two hundred pounds. I realize what it is: a dead man.
Horror crawls up my spine and creeps into my skull. They stack the bodies in the hall outside the morgue like a pile of wood. I realize I have been placed there. And they have started to pile bodies on top of me.
Another body lands on me. I am being crushed to death by those already within death’s grasp. I feel a rib, already fractured from uncontrollable coughing, give way completely. Two ribs. The throbbing in my head is all-encompassing now and my mind begins to narrow. It darkens to a single spot of burning light.
Then the light goes out.
Historical Note: This story takes place during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. It is based, not a specific incident, but on a specific nightmare. A nurse stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station remembered that during the peak of the pandemic, the overworked nurses would sometimes move soldiers to the morgue before they were dead. It saved time. For the rest of her life, this nurse was haunted by a recurring nightmare: “What it would feel like to be that boy who was at the bottom of the cord wood in the morgue.” (Source: Barry, John. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.)