Our first Tuesday Short Story is by Nick Marsh. Nick has never forgiven his parents for giving him a happy childhood, thus depriving him of the necessary angst and bottled-up rage to become a full-time writer. Not only that, his genetic inheritance has so far thwarted every attempt to grow a beard to make him appear dark and brooding. Four weeks of strenuous effort only result in a near-invisible fluffy covering that even a student would quickly shave off in embarrassment. Since his late teenage years he has been proud to have managed to maintain his height at a constant five feet ten inches. If only everything in life were that simple. He currently works as a veterinary surgeon in Plymouth. On his days off he spends his time being cruel to pot plants, gaming, drinking cups of tea and, occasionally, writing.
You can find Nick online at http://www.nick-marsh.co.uk and on his blog at “Maybe It -Should- Happen To a Vet“, and on Twitter at @Lordof1 and Facebook as Nick Marsh, Author. He also has an Amazon Author page here, and a Goodreads page here.
This is the story’s first publication.
Out of Hours
by Nick Marsh
Maybe it was the phrase that bothered Jimmy as much as anything else: out of hours. It made it sound as if you were caught in a distant, twilight world, between the cracks of normal time. In a way, of course, you were; out of hours, it was always dark, everyone you met was an anxious stranger, and everything that happened was an emergency. Everything was always worse out of hours.
He had never noticed how big the practice was before. In the day, rushing from his consulting room, to the waiting room, ops theatre, toilet and break room, the place seemed—well, not small, exactly, but… full. Busy. Now, in the dark, with only the light of the phone and the occasional creaks from the heating for company, Church Court Veterinary Hospital had never felt emptier.
Jimmy sighed. The bed creaked as he turned over again and stared at the wall. He felt like one of those dolls with eyes that close when you lay them down, and that spring open when you put them upright—except that Jimmy’s body had it the wrong way around. When he got up, his eyes grew heavy and exhaustion lay upon him like a lead apron, but when he tried to sleep, his eyes refused to stay closed. No luck. He sighed, sat up, threw the duvet aside and walked out, into the flat.
* * *
Shitty luck, that was all. Shitty luck and rotten timing. Karen was away in Egypt, Becky had broken an arm skiing last week and Sophie had just started maternity leave; so when Peter phoned in sick at quarter to six this evening, it didn’t leave any nurses left to cover the night shift. Jimmy, the duty vet, was going to have to do it himself. Katie offered to stay and work, of course, but Jimmy knew what kind of day she’d had—her own cat’s biopsy results had come back today (cancer, of course; why did nurses’ animals always get the worst things wrong with them?) and he told her to go home. He was stressed when he was on call anyway, he said, so it didn’t really matter whether he was stressed at home or stressed at the practice. The only difference was that he would have to check over the inpatients and answer the phone himself, and he wouldn’t have been much of a vet if he couldn’t manage that for just one night.
Katie had smiled and told him she didn’t think he was much of a vet anyway, and Jimmy laughed and told her to piss off home. She did so, after promising to come in early the next morning so Jimmy could head home, grab a shower, breakfast and a change of pants so he didn’t “stink the place out tomorrow”. Jimmy pushed her out of the back door and locked it behind her. The quietness had almost seemed like a blessing, then, a pleasant change from the yowling, barking, phone-ringing chaos that normally filled the practice. Now, six hours later, alone and sleepless in the dark, the blessing was turning into a curse.
Except that he wasn’t quite alone, was he? He was awake and restless; might as well check the inpatients.
The metal spiral stairs creaked as he descended—they always did, but it sounded a hell of a lot more ominous at two in the morning. The reception area loomed vast and empty in the dark, and Jimmy hurried quickly past it, into the ward.
Jonesy, the cat with liver disease, jumped and blinked as the lights flicked on. Jimmy tickled his ear, but Jonesy sat passively, staring past him. Jimmy sighed, and picked up Jonesy’s litter tray. The pee was still bright yellow. Jimmy emptied and refilled it, checked the drip line, and removed the untouched food from Jonesy’s cage. No sense in it sitting there, making the cat feel sicker. Jimmy checked the meds on Jonesy’s hospital sheet, but couldn’t think of anything to change. It was a waiting game now. He stroked Jonesy’s chin, but the cat only blinked tiredly and turned its head away.
“Get well for me, mate,” Jimmy said, then wished he hadn’t as his words echoed back to him across the silent room. He closed Jonesy’s cage, and briefly glanced in at the pigeon two cages along from him. Black eyes stared back, and the creature’s right wing still drooped, sign of a badly damaged wing. Jimmy thought what it must be like for a wild animal, trapped in a cage with every expectation of death. It wasn’t going to get better. Wouldn’t it be kinder just put it to sleep now? Why did Sarah admit it in the first place? Well, she could deal with it in the morning.
He turned from the bird and to the large walk-in kennel at the other side of the room. The big mastiff in there had lifted its head, and as Jimmy looked at it, the heavy tail thumped weakly against the wall a couple of times. Jimmy grinned.
“That’s more like it!” he said, bounding over to the kennel. The tail thumped again and the mastiff tried to stand, then sank slowly down on its forepaws, looking up at Jimmy.
“Wow, you’re looking better, aren’t you?” Jimmy said, opening the cage and ruffling through the thick brown hair on top of the dog’s head. Thump thump thump.
A success story, finally. The dog might not look wonderful, but it looked at least thirty times better than it had when Jimmy saw it this morning; when that crazy old man had half-carried, half-dragged the poor thing into his consulting room. It was even money as to who had been in a worse state: the mastiff, grunting in pain and vomiting as Jimmy had felt its abdomen, or the emaciated old guy, unshaven, unkempt, with wide crazed eyes and wearing a stained threadbare suit two sizes too big for him. Tillinghast, that had been his name. And the dog? Jimmy looked up at the hospital sheet pinned on the mastiff’s door to remind himself.
That was it. Man, what a freak. Who calls their dog something like that? The guy had got Jimmy’s hackles up right from the start, because he kept talking about having to get back to his “work” rather than appearing worried about his extremely sick dog. Jimmy, remaining professional, explained that he was worried Curator might have eaten something that was now stuck in the intestine. The crazy guy’s eyes had widened as Jimmy spoke, and he’d looked at his own pet with something close to horror. Jimmy did his best to ignore this, and explained that he wanted to take an x-ray to check. The man’s reaction to this removed any doubt Jimmy had that he was a lunatic.
“An x-ray? God! Are you insane?” the man had shouted, while Jimmy took a moment to assess the irony of the statement. He could see that the man was visibly trying to calm himself down.
“I… uh… I mean, you can’t take an x-ray. Absolutely not. If you think there’s something in there, just cut him open and take it out.”
Jimmy had gritted his teeth, and politely explained that although he was suspicious of a foreign body, he couldn’t be sure—Curator’s size meant that he couldn’t feel the abdomen very well, and he wasn’t about to “cut open” a dog just for the fun of it, as it might very well worsen the condition. The man would not be argued with, though. No x-rays. He was absolutely adamant, muttering something about the energies involved. Jimmy assured the old guy that a single x-ray would cause no harm to Curator, but no luck. The old guy had refused to sign the consent form until Jimmy had deleted the word from it. He then insisted that he needed to know about anything they might find “in there” as soon as possible, making Jimmy promise he would contact him as soon as he had retrieved anything.
“Fucking lunatic,” Jimmy had muttered to Katie as soon as the old man was out of earshot.
“Maybe he’s lost his gold watch,” Katie laughed.
“Yeah, and he thinks we’re going to make it radioactive if we zap it,” Jimmy said, as they manoeuvred Curator onto a stretcher.
* * *
Jimmy had tried to honour his word, he really had. He didn’t take promises he made to clients lightly. But even under anaesthetic, palpating that huge abdomen was like trying to feel a marble inside a balloon while wearing boxing gloves full of jelly. He had tried ultrasound, but the probe barely penetrated Curator’s deep belly.
“Balls to it,” he said, switching on the x-ray machine. Katie raised her eyebrows. “I’m not going to charge him for it,” Jimmy said. “Look, we need to know whether to go in or not. He’s never been vaccinated either, so what if it’s parvo? Opening him up might finish him off. I need to know.”
Katie nodded, silently agreeing. A promise to a client was one thing, but letting an animal die in pain because of some crazy belief was quite another.
“We’ll delete it afterwards,” Jimmy had said, as they rolled the big dog onto its side and slid the radiographic plate into place under the table. “I just want to be sure.”
Jimmy was sure after the x-ray; it was hard not to be. A bright white oval, three centimetres across, sat in Curator’s small intestine, with a tonne of gas building up behind it. Curator had eaten something he shouldn’t have. They’d taken bets, as usual. Katie thought it was a stone, Jimmy thought it looked like metal. Whatever it was, no x-rays had made it through it to hit the plate on the other side. The only way it was coming out was surgically.
* * *
Now alone in the practice except for his patients, Jimmy looked down at Curator. Thump thump thump. Jimmy smiled, and ran his fingers through the coarse, dark hair on the dog’s back, feeling absurdly envious. All you have to do now, he thought, is lie here and recover. Stress and pain behind you. Jimmy thought of the long night stretching out before him, and the long day beyond that would bring new crises to his door. For a moment, he would have given anything to swap places with the recovering dog. He shook his head. Everything seemed worse out of hours.
There were some advantages to being here in the night, though. These were the experiences you missed. Curator grunted contentedly as Jimmy tickled his ear. Little moments with the animals to remind you why you do it in the first place. That’s why the job was never as satisfying as it should have been. Normally, if Curator recovered well, Jimmy would have briefly checked him over the next morning, pronounced that he could go home, and checked his stitches a few days later. He’d never get to see Curator sleeping happily at home, and feel that it was all worthwhile. He might see him six months later for a vaccination, and think “Do I know this dog? Oh yeah, I took a foreign body out of him, didn’t I?”, but that was it.
Assuming he recovered well. The times Jimmy did see his cases back again and again, the times he did really get to know them, they were usually dying. Jimmy laid his hand on the big dog’s chest and tried not to think about the number of times that his hand been the last human hand ever to touch a pet, as they slid slowly into the dark abyss of the thick plastic bag.
“Wow,” he murmured out loud to Curator, surprised at his own dark thoughts. “See, I told you everything was worse out of hours.” He patted the big dog once more, and then stood, closing the cage door, glancing at the foreign body that hung from the clipboard holding Curator’s hospital sheet as he did so.
Then he looked again. The stone that he had removed from Curator’s jejunum earlier in the day had certainly been peculiar—a perfectly smooth greenish-grey oval of soapstone—but it had easily dropped into the small plastic grip-seal bag that Katie had held open for him during the op. Now the bag was swollen and split along one side. The grip seal had held, but Jimmy could see there was no way the stone could fit through the opening now. Could the bag have shrunk?
He unhooked the bag from the clipboard and lifted it up to peer at the stone. It was perfectly dry, and there was no condensation on the inside of the bag. Jimmy thought back to when he was easing the stone through the incision in Curator’s intestine; the bowels around the stone were shrivelled and necrotic, and Jimmy had to resect six inches of jejunum to get back to anything like normal tissue. He remembered watching blood from the muscle incision drip onto the stone as he had lifted it free. The blood had sunk into the stone as if it were a sponge, leaving the surface totally dry.
Jimmy frowned, touched the stone through the split bag, then gasped and recoiled. The thing was warm! He looked at the split seal, the stone, and down at Curator. The stone definitely looked bigger. The old man’s voice and wide eyes echoed around Jimmy’s brain as he stood and looked at the stone. “An x-ray? God! Are you insane?”
A thought struck him, and he turned from the kennel to walk over to the computer that sat on the worktop below the wide window overlooking the car park. He leaned down to the monitor, wiggling the mouse with his left hand to wake the machine from its electric slumber. He opened the client record of “Curator Tillinghast”, and with a quick backward glance at the stone on the clipboard, he clicked on the attached file “LatAbdoXray.dicom”.
The digitised image of the radiograph appeared on the screen. Jimmy blinked a couple of times, then his veterinary senses reasserted themselves. There was the abdomen, bordered by the last rib, the lumbar spine and the femur. There were the liver, the spleen, the kidneys, the bladder, the stomach. And there was the stone, bright white in the dull grey of the soft tissue, followed by a length of black backed-up intestinal gas like the tail of a comet.
Jimmy rubbed his chin, and zoomed in on the stone, frowning. Size was always hard to judge on a digital radiograph; the whole image had been shrunk to fit the screen. There may have been a way of measuring objects with the digital software, but Jimmy had never mastered that. Still, looking at the size of it, compared to the dog’s abdomen…
Jimmy frowned, peering closely at the screen. For the first time, he noticed that the stone was not perfectly homogenous on the radiograph. He could make out lines—shapes?—within the stone, even lighter than the stone itself. Lighter meant less x-rays had made it through to hit the plate. Lighter meant denser.
He rubbed his chin as he tried to remember how to manipulate the contrast. He tapped a few buttons, and moved the mouse. As he did so, the image on the screen altered, the greyscale image rolling through different settings, the whites growing darker, the blacks growing lighter, and then back again. As he rocked through the settings, Jimmy squinted at the stone, and began to make out a shape. There was definitely something in there. The dense lines were connected in a familiar pattern. A circle, with a long curving line extending from it, with a set of ten or more parallel curving lines below it, almost like… almost like…
Jimmy’s breath caught in his throat. Almost like a skeleton.
Now that he had seen it, it was unmistakable. A skeleton, curled and twisted within the thick stone. The head was wide, with an elongated nose, like a snout, but the pelvis, the legs and the curled forearms looked more like… well, more like a human than anything else.
A sharp crack and a strange scuttling noise made him spin his head, open-mouthed from the screen. He was just in time to see a small shape disappear through the doorway.
“What the f—?” he said, turning from the computer. His hands and feet suddenly felt very cold. In front of Curator’s kennel, numerous chunks of greenish-grey stone were strewn on the floor amongst the tattered remnants of a clear plastic grip bag. Jimmy crept over to them, and picked one up. Even now, it was warm to the touch, and the inner surface of the stone was concave, as smooth as the outside. The stone had been hollow. Just like an eggshell.
“An x-ray? God! Are you insane?”
Standing in the suddenly silent ward with the warm stone fragment in his hand, Jimmy shivered. Maybe the old man hadn’t been paranoid about cancer after all. Was it possible that the high energies in the beam could have… activated something?
A heart-stopping shriek suddenly echoed across the room from behind him. Jimmy dropped the fragment in fright as he spun around to see Jonesy the cat leaping towards the front of his cage. The cage door shook as the thin cat crashed into it, continuing to shriek and yowl in a frenzy of feline terror. Again and again Jonesy smashed into the door, hissing and spitting, eyes wide, ears back, mouth open. Two doors along from the terrified cat, a cage door began to judder under a frenzied assault from the wild pigeon, which was flapping its wings and squawking in a way that chilled Jimmy’s blood. He stood for a second, paralysed by the unexpected cacophony of chaos that had erupted, when Curator started to howl as well. Jonesy was already bleeding from his eye and leg, and he was showing no sign of letting up his assault. If the cat didn’t stop soon, the sheer effort was probably going to kill him.
“Shit shit shit,” Jimmy muttered, already half-way out of the room and heading for the crash box. Grabbing the small black box from the pharmacy, he hurried back into the ward, trying to concentrate with the screaming, squawking and howling around him. Fumbling for a bottle and a syringe, he quickly drew up a dose and reached for the injection port on Jonesy’s IV line. The plastic tubing pulled out of the cage and flopped uselessly to the floor as Jimmy lifted it—Jonesy’s frenzy had pulled the line out of his leg. As he watched, Jonesy smashed into the cage door once more then collapsed on his side, panting and staring at the back of his cage. The cat’s chest heaved with exertion, then his head slowly sank to the floor of the cage.
“No no no no no,” Jimmy exclaimed as he pulled open the door. Jonesy flopped out, and Jimmy caught him. The chest had already stopped moving.
“Fuck!” Jimmy cried, fumbling for the stethoscope from the crash kit. No heart beat. Jimmy pumped the chest with one hand while he grabbed an endotracheal tube from the box, but he knew it was already too late. One handed, he managed to pass the tube, blowing down it then pumping the chest again. Still nothing. As Jimmy lowered the stethoscope and looked down at Jonesy’s crumpled, bleeding figure, another cage door sprang open and a battered pigeon dropped to the floor with a horrible crunch. It was already dead.
* * *
Curator’s howls faded into silence as Jimmy, kneeling, gazed numbly at the two bodies. Jonesy’s body was already getting stiff, as sometimes happens with extreme muscle exertion just before death. He massaged his head, trying to sort his jangling nerves into sense. Something had spooked Jonesy, that was all, and it had set the others off.
Jimmy looked down at the small body. Spooked him enough to bash his brains out on the cage? The pigeon too? Jimmy turned to look at Curator. The big dog was wide eyed and panting, but appeared no worse for wear. Jimmy turned to look at the computer screen again, and caught a reflection of himself in the now-dark surface. He was as wide-eyed as the dog. He had to calm down. There was a simple explanation, he was just too tired and jumpy to see it.
“Everything always seems worse—” he began, but a low hum in the distance stopped him. The lights flickered and he heard a distant chu-chunk from the back of the building.
The x-ray machine.
Jimmy turned, looking at the back wall of the ward; the wall that was lead lined to prevent x-rays passing through it; the wall that Jonesy and the bird had smashed themselves to death trying to get away from.
Chu-chunk. And again. Chu-chunk.
Jimmy stepped towards the door and peered down the dark corridor. Red light burned above the door to the x-ray suite, indicating the machine was in use. Jimmy’s lips formed unintelligible words as he began to walk towards the back of the practice.
Must be a malfunction. That’s what had spooked Jonesy and the bird. He hadn’t heard it, but they had. That must be it.
He passed the pharmacy, approaching the door to the suite. Jimmy remembered walking around the practice earlier in the evening, closing all the doors, before he headed up the spiral staircase to the flat above. Now the door to the x-ray suite was open.
With each firing of the machine, the red light above the door flickered. Winking. Mocking. Jimmy shook his head and approached the door.
How could it malfunction? The button that fired the beam was on a hand-grip, attached to the machine by a long cable. To take a radiograph, the trigger on the hand-grip had to be depressed, setting the cylinder in the machine’s head spinning. Pressing the button then fired the beam. It couldn’t work any other way.
Jimmy stopped at the door, not looking beyond.
“An x-ray? God! Are you insane?”
He thought of the half-glimpsed shape disappearing through the doorway as he had turned from the computer. He thought of the skeleton inside its impossible eggshell. He thought of the old man’s staring eyes when he had mentioned radiography. Staring with fright.
If one exposure had been enough to… activate… whatever was inside that stone, what would another do? Another ten? Twenty?
Chu-chunk. Chu-chunk. Chu-chunk.
He thought of a hand wrapped around the grip in the darkness; of an inhuman thumb pressing a button in the silence. He suddenly found it hard to breathe. As the machine continued its mechanical song, Jimmy started to edge back from the door, restraining the urge to run, suddenly cursing the revealing scarlet light above him.
He reached the door to the pharmacy, still open from his rush for the crash box. Blood cold and heart racing, he hurried inside, closing the door as quietly as he could.
The hum stopped as the cylinder head in the machine stopped spinning. Jimmy heard a distant clatter, like a hand-grip being dropped to the floor. He sank slowly against the closed door, pressing himself against it, whispering prayers that hadn’t passed his lips for twenty years. Above him, the red light that had been filtering through the window of the pharmacy door disappeared, leaving only the light from the ward opposite. Jimmy stared up at the window, pressed against the door, trying not to think of Jonesy. Trying not to think of the dead bird.
Then he heard the footsteps. Heavy. Unhurried.
“Oh God, oh God,” Jimmy whispered, terror crushing him down to the floor, pressing him against the door. The sound grew louder as the unseen feet walked up the corridor. Jimmy closed his eyes. From across the corridor, he heard a low growl. The footsteps had stopped. The growl intensified. Curator. Jimmy opened his eyes and looked up, then bit down hard on his lip to prevent himself from screaming. A dark shape in front of the window blocked out the light from the ward. Jimmy tasted blood. He saw the doorknob start to turn, just a fraction, and heard it rattle. His guts turned to ice, and he closed his eyes. Then, from across the corridor, the growl turned into a bark, and another one. The dark shape disappeared from the window. Jimmy heard the crash of a cage door, and a low whimper.
Jimmy tasted his own blood, not daring to breathe. He closed his eyes, and thought of the big dog alone in the darkness, except for… except for…
He took a deep breath. Another whimper cut through the silent practice. Jimmy made up his mind. He stood, and grabbed the heaviest object he could lay his hands on; a fire extinguisher from the wall beside him. One more deep breath, then he flung open the door and ran into the ward, wielding the extinguisher before him, half like a club and half like a religious icon.
The large window that overlooked the car park had been pulled open. There were deep, fresh grooves in the plaster on either side of the window. Jimmy didn’t dwell on what might have made them. The computer monitor was gone; in its place was a neatly severed thick black cable. Jimmy put the extinguisher down and turned to the kennel. Curator lay cowering at the back, a wide yellow puddle slowly spreading from under him. His ears and tail were clamped down, and he whimpered again, slightly, as Jimmy peered in.
Slowly, Jimmy walked over to the window. Outside, the car park was as silent and empty as it had been since Katie had driven away. He looked beyond it, to the lights of the city, and shuddered. With trembling hands, he slid the window closed again, trying not to think of the marks in the plaster. Then he turned back to the kennel, and opened the door. Curator’s tail twitched a little.
“It’s okay,” Jimmy said, soothingly. He pulled some paper towel from a nearby holder, cleaning up the big dog’s mess. Curator’s ears lifted a little.
“It’s okay,” Jimmy said again. The big dog began to move forward. With Jimmy’s encouragement, he finally shuffled out of the kennel. Jimmy ruffled his ears, sitting on the floor of the pharmacy. “I won’t leave you again,” he whispered.
The big dog began to wag his tail as Jimmy stared out of the window, wondering what stories tomorrow’s newspapers would tell. “It’s okay,” he said, one last time. “Everything always seems worse out of hours.”