Angels Children's (Part 3: Hanh Tran)
Previously on Angels: A new nurse Jen finally seemed to get over the fearful experience of the cursed corridor. However, a tragic loss of her patient while passing through the corridor leads to a mental breakdown. The shy co-worker Hanh makes a visit to reveal a creepy secret of the hospital.Announcement : It is now confirmed that the Full-Scale Exercise will take place on March 25th, at approximately 0700. All staff will be clearly designated prior to the Exercise whether they will be participating or maintain routine patient care duties. The objective is to assess and improve our effectiveness in responding to a simulated earthquake and secondary chemical contamination. Operations Managers have been assigned for each area. You may direct any questions and concerns to them as they arise. Thank you for your commitment and cooperation. - Exercise Planning Team, ext. 4166
I woke up on the couch after a long, dreamless sleep. Thin lines of sunlight beamed through the closed blind, indicating it was already afternoon. Rubbing my puffy eyes, I slowly sat up. As my groggy head cleared, I remembered the conversation that went on long into the night. I recalled his soft, almost monotonous voice. And I had listened, alternating between sobbing with self-pity and wide-eyed disbelief.
It was so unreal that I would have thought I just dreamt the whole thing, but a piece of note on the table wiped out any room for a hopeful doubt:
Thank you for listening to what I had to say. Please take care and I hope you return soon. I need your help, Hanh — said the note in neat block letters.
I chuckled into the air. How did I get involved in this insanity, I wondered.
I shook my head. If he came and told me all that he said last night expecting that I could be of help in anything, he was sorely mistaken. He was obviously the expert of the supernatural, not I. He had, in all those past years, had the time to know these… children. For almost thirty years.
Now I understood what Carol meant when she joked about how long he had been there. Hanh had come to Angels as a five-year-old with leukemia, grown up amongst nurses and other sick children of the hem/onc floor. He had returned to them as a healthy teen, gotten a job as an aide, and stayed ever since.
People who knew him assumed that he came back out of sympathy for the children who were going through what he himself went through. While partly true, it was more of a contractual agreement.
He had gone septic during the dangerous plunge of the blood counts, with complications that led to a long stay in the unit, intubated. When he returned to the floor – an event with much fanfare, as his recovery had been hailed miraculous – he saw his new roommate, a tween girl, staring enviously at his parents fussing over him. She would soon learn that there was nothing to envy, as his doting parents were more absent than not – through no fault of their own, as they were struggling to make ends meet as poor immigrants. Gleefully, she assumed the role of an older, wiser sibling, taught him the bad words in English, revealed the tricks to make nurses do his bidding. Having lived her short life in and out of the hospital due to sickle cell crises, she knew all about being a patient.
She was bossy, chatty, and easily irritated. But on the nights when he wept because his bones ached too much or he terribly missed home, she came and sat next to him, letting him know he was not alone. She tried singing to him too, and he flat out told her it was bad. She would pout and ignore him, pretending to be busy with her magazine. She loved glossy fashion magazines, and cutting out small pieces of colorful pages. When he was in an adventurous mood, he would snag the ones strewn around the nurses station to bring her. She would giggle, excitedly flipping through the pages.
One day, a nurse came in accompanying a boy, carried in his mother’s arms, and told him he had a new roommate. He shifted to the edge of his bed to make room for the boy. The nurse smiled.
How sweet of you, Hanh! But he has his own bed right here, the nurse assured him.
Before he could protest, the new boy was lowered onto the bed next to him. He turned to the girl who was quietly watching the whole scene, leaning against the wall in a corner, one foot idly kicking at the wall. When his confused eyes found hers, she put a finger to her lips, ruefully shaking her head no – Don’t say anything. It was then it dawned on him – the others could not see her. They never had.
That night, she whispered into his ear.
<Will you still bring me magazines?>
He nodded. And whispered back:
Will you still be here?
She nodded. <I’m always here.>
He kept his promise and so did she. Even though he grew, she treated him exactly as she did when he was five years old. She never startled other people. The only evidence of her existence was the occasional mess of colorful pieces of magazine cut-out.
He came to know numerous other children over time. Some of them kept to themselves. Some of them seemed to love his attention, drawing near to snuggle when they noticed that he noticed. Some remained in their “territory” forever, while some disappeared after a while. He had not been able to come up with any coherent theories on these “beings” and their behaviors. So he just continued his role of a passive observer, and a caregiver of children both living and dead.
He had not met any such children who were overtly hostile until an encounter in the underground corridor, shortly after the post-earthquake construction was completed.
“I was slammed with this terrifying hatred,” he’d told me. “That was it at first, as soon as I stepped into the corridor. Then the scream. When I could finally see her, she was already right up against me, her arms stretching out at me. Had I not run before she grabbed me, I probably wouldn’t be alive.”
I had shivered, recalling the bone-chilling touch.
“Why do you care who she is? Obviously she’s an evil spirit, trying to kill people.”
“Not just anyone. She hates the hospitalized children.”
“But you are not… Oh.” He had been one.
“That corridor didn’t exist before the earthquake. I think she’s a victim who somehow got lost and buried, I don’t know. Why she’s attacked our kids, I don’t know either. I just know she was not a patient of the hospital. Our kids who died during the quake… I know their names, how and where they died. She isn’t one of them. She won’t talk to me, but I think…” He paused and looked up at me with expectant eyes.
“Somehow, she only… ‘grazed’ by you. You heard her feelings but her anger was not directed at you. I really think you are the one who might be able to help her.”
I had jerked back in shock. “Are you kidding me? If she’s really a ghost that died in the earthquake as you say, she’s a malicious one that terrifies and kills people. Why would anyone want to help her?”
“But,” he said.
“… but if you saw a lost girl crying alone in the streets, would you want to find her the way, or ignore her?”
Yes, I would ignore her. For the time being. Because there was only so much I could handle.
The matter of a vengeful ghost aside, I had the pressing issue of my own future as a nurse hanging in balance. I could have given up then and there. In fact, during the time I hid under the blankets, I felt as though there was no way to get over what I perceived as an irrevocable, gross incompetency. In spite of Hanh’s validation that I did not kill Miguel, my self-confidence was shattered beyond repair.
It was tempting to forget my job, and run as far away from Angels as possible. But in the end, practical matters kept me in the city – student loans, bills, rent… I had to go back to work. I would have to rebuild my confidence. I would deal with my ruined reputation gradually, one humiliation at a time. What I was not ready to face, though, was the corridor.
I picked up my phone, dialed the number to Diane, the unit manager of 5 East/West, to beg for the day shift.
“Are you sure you can handle the pace?” she inquired. I gulped. Known as a hardass, I knew she was vocal about a possible disciplinary action against me after I failed to complete the shift on the night Miguel died. It was the sheer effort of advocacy from Carol that I was taken off the schedule with sick leave instead.
“I’m going to put you with Robby in the East for one week. We’ll see how you do and go from there. You’re lucky we’re in the Exercise prep period, which gave me some extra budget and staff.”
After a brief pause, she continued, with a surprisingly softer voice. “You did well throughout the orientation. It would be a shame to lose you. So, get yourself together, alright?”
The phone clicked as I stammered my gratitude.
When I returned to the floor, the place had turned into a bizarre movie set. The west side of the hall, my home unit, was almost empty save for two rooms closest to 5 East. It seemed the empty rooms had become a temporary storage for all sorts of scenario supplies – cots, shovels, hazmat suits, even fake arms and legs. Curious visitors cocked their heads to see what was going on. They’d better watch out for kids trying to sneak in there to play, I thought.
I familiarized myself with the sister unit quickly enough. Getting into the groove of the day shift, on the other hand, was a challenge. I still managed without incident, except at the end of my second day. My “extended” preceptor, Robby, threw up his hands in the air, exasperated.
“For pete’s sake, Jen, you don’t have to ask me every little thing before you do it. Is she in pain? Is it time? Then go ahead and give that morphine!”
At the sudden outburst of the usually-friendly guy, I stood stunned, mouth hanging open. Then, I could see myself as reflected in Robby’s eyes: impossibly skittish, completely regressed from the self-assured, motivated new grad that Carol was once so proud of. How pathetic.
Awkwardly, he scratched his head, cleared his throat, and tentatively reached out to pat my shoulder.
“Hey, I don’t mean…”
Instead of crying as he might have expected, I began chuckling, and soon I was nearly doubled over laughing. All heads turned.
“No no, it’s okay, Robby,” I assured him, still chuckling. With a dismissive wave of a hand, I turned around and headed to the med room. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the nurses making the “loose screw” gesture with her index finger while another snickered.
I sighed with relief as I finished the last of the report. I hurried to the locker, eager to grab my purse and get out. I reached up to remove my stethoscope hanging around my neck… or should have been hanging. Ugh. I rolled my eyes in irritation and returned to the nurses station.
“Has anyone seen my stethoscope? It’s bright yellow with a ladybug on it. You can’t miss it.”
A few kind souls bothered to scan their areas and shook their heads. I briskly walked toward the last room I was in, figuring I would retrace my steps. Then I saw a familiar figure exiting the room next door, greeting me. It was Hanh, holding the object I was looking for.
“Oh, that’s mine!”
“I know,” he answered, handing it over. “I heard you and knew where to find it. There’s a mischievous one who hides things sometimes,” he spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone with a grin.
It took me a moment but I realized he was not talking about a patient. With the comprehension, I felt my hair stand on its end. Then, a flash of anger. Without thinking, I grabbed his wrist and marched up the hall to the empty west side, dragging the perplexed Hanh behind me. I nudged him into an empty room, making sure there was no one in earshot.
“I can’t help you,” I spat.
“I’m sorry for being selfish but I can’t take it. It’s hard enough to, to…” I swallowed a lump in my throat. All he did was looking at me in silence, and somehow he seemed to draw my tears out. I swallowed hard and blinked the tears away.
“If I had a choice, I would get the hell out of this hospital, but I can’t. I need to work. But each time I think of… of that place, and Miguel, and…” I covered my face in shame. “I can pretend none of it happened. I mean, I do have to deal with losing him, and how stupid I was at the critical moment… I am trying to face up to it. But the other things… I can at least pretend they never happened, if you’d let me be…”
Hanh looked down, biting his lips in disappointment. Without reproach, he just nodded, nervously shuffling his feet.
“I am thankful that you came and talked to me,” I continued. “I probably couldn’t have come back to work if you hadn’t done that. You reassured me I wasn’t crazy!” A nervous laugh. “But I don't know what I can do about it. What can you possibly…”
I trailed off, not having the heart to go on as I saw Hanh’s dejected slump.
A sudden chirp broke our awkward silence, making us jump. Hanh reached for his cell. “Amy’s asking for the vitals. I’d better go.”
My day shift performance was deemed satisfactory and Diane approved me as an official staff nurse in 5 East. Although I would have loved to stay in 5 West, there were no openings. The east/west distinction was moot for the moment, however, as we were all crowded into the east side while the Operations people descended upon the West, busily setting up their game show.
Several times I ran into Hanh during change of shift. Our verbal exchanges were minimal. Funny thing was, now I was the one avoiding eye contact with him, an awkward greeting before scurrying away. I knew how disappointed he was after our last encounter. He probably thought he had found a friend to share his secrets. He might have felt elated that he could finally solve the frightening mystery of the corridor. But I was not the one, I justified to myself over and over.
In spite of our limited interaction, I felt him growing anxious for some reason, day after day. It was the spaced-out look, or the nervous tap of his foot, or jumping at the overhead page. In retrospect, if only I had asked what was bothering him, we might have had a chance to prepare better for the precipitous turn of events awaiting us.
I showed up thirty minutes early on the day of the Exercise. I was to be a part of the simulation in 5 West while half the staff continued the daily routine on the other side. Our charge, Vicky, acting as the controller for this area, assembled all the players.
“Good morning everyone! Here’s what’s gonna happen: An earthquake will strike in a few minutes, which will cause some structural damage. Some elevators will fail. We will experience a power outage. Our focus here is maintaining safety for our kiddos. You won’t be doing triage. ED’s handling external victims. There is a possibility we might get transfers from them or from Imaging Center who’s doing decontamination. So, know your ABCs and PPEs, and you’ll do fine. Pay attention to the overhead announcement. Okay, to your stations!”
“Hey it’s shaking!” someone joked, rattling the chart rack. A mock scream and a laughter. Vicky shot her “boss” glare, and everyone sprang to their feet. I checked on my “patients” who were actually volunteers from a local high school. Aspiring actors and actresses from the drama club, maybe. Their feigned illnesses were pretty authentic.
ATTENTION STAFF AND VISITORS. THIS IS AN EXERCISE. THIS IS AN EXERCISE. CODE TRIAGE EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT, CODE TRIAGE EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT. AGAIN THIS IS AN EXERCISE…
A light chatter erupted among my kids but stopped immediately as ceiling lights flickered. I sprang to action, inspecting my equipment, switching plugs to the red outlets.
THIS IS AN EXERCISE THIS IS AN EXERCISE. CODE ORANGE LOWER LEVEL EAST HALL. CODE ORANGE LOWER LEVEL EAST HALL. AGAIN THIS IS AN EXERCISE…
The lights were now going out in succession. Giving myself a mental smack for not having thought of flashlights, I carefully navigated dimmed hallway to the storage room. As I rummaged in the dark, I heard Vicky’s agitated voice from the nurses station, as if arguing with someone.
“…as supply and evacuation route, yes. It’s been all planned out… No! Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t just interrupt the simulation! Do you have any idea how much money and time have been poured into this?”
Holding an armful of flashlights, I cocked my head to see what was going on. In the dim illumination of emergency lights, I saw a small figure darting across to the elevators.
“Your shift is over! Go home!” Vicky shouted after him.
With a realization, I hurried over. “That was Hanh, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. I don’t know what his problem is. I’m calling the Operations, before he causes trouble,” declared Vicky, shaking her head. Before she could even switch on her walkie-talkie, however, I shoved my flashlights into her arms.
“Hey, where are you going?” she yelled from behind as I ran after him.
He frantically pushed the button to summon the elevator, but none of them were operating. I ran faster when I saw him disappearing into the stairwell.
“Hanh! Wait!” I shouted from above. His footsteps paused.
“Yes, it’s me. What are you doing?”
“They’re using it for the Exercise. I asked Vicky to tell them to use the bridge instead but she doesn’t understand!”
“Well, I don’t either. Why are you so worried? We won’t even have any patients through there today!”
He ran back up to where I was leaning over and gripped my arms. “It’ll be dark! The earthquake! She will think it’s…”
Before he could finish, the overhead paging system sputtered again.
ATTENTION STAFF THIS IS NOT AN EXERCISE. INTERNAL TRIAGE LOWER LEVEL EAST HALL INTERNAL TRIAGE LOWER LEVEL EAST HALL. REPEAT. THIS IS NOT AN EXERCISE…
“It’s her!” he yelled, and flew down the stairs.
I gripped the rails, confused and torn with indecision. What did he mean? It wasn’t as if we were having a real earthquake. But something was happening. Why? I had not set foot in the corridor since I came back to work. I had intentionally blocked its existence in my conscious thoughts. If I had to face it again, just when I finally seemed to get back to some sort of normalcy…
The exit door creaked below, followed by a slam as Hanh went through.
I ran down the stairs after him.
I ran past the pharmacy window and gritted my teeth as I pushed the double doors that opened into the corridor.
As soon as I stepped in, a howling wind assaulted my senses, almost knocking me over. A whirlwind of flying debris mixed with people’s screams filled the narrow passageway. With my body pressed against a wall, I shielded my eyes and strained to see where the emergency exit sign from the far end cast its dim red glow on frenzied shapes. I could see about a dozen, mostly the techs from the Imaging Center, some of them crawling on the floor amongst heaps of rubble, some of them sprawled on the ground. Someone was snarling into a walkie-talkie, motioning others toward the exit sign. The doors that I just came through burst open again, and a resident in surgical scrubs rushed in, accompanied by several nurses, probably responding to the overhead page earlier. They too, stopped dead in their tracks in disbelief.
There was a rumble and chunks of concrete poured from the gutted ceiling, eliciting more screams. Through the cacophony, I heard a high-pitched, ear-splitting cry of a terrified child, reverberating along the walls. The whole corridor trembled. Glass shards rained down as the light fixtures shattered from above.
In the eye of the storm, at the center of the whirlwind pulsating with each beat of the harrowing cry, I spotted Hanh, down on his knees, hunched over. He seemed to be hugging himself and muttering, over and over.
“…it’s okay you’re safe it’s okay…”
The piercing intensity of the crying voice receded into a muted weep, and the wind seemed to dwindle. Dangling pieces of destroyed pipes from the ceiling made creaking noise as they swayed.
I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye, and lowered my arms to look around. It was the triage team jumping into action, using this moment of relative safety to drag victims out. I followed suit, rushing toward Hanh, who was still hunkered down ahead.
“Come on!” I cried, pulling him up by the arm. In a dazed stupor, he stumbled to his feet and wobbled behind me as I ran toward the exit.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” the resident waved his hand, propping the door open for us to pass through. Just a few more steps. A few more…
<Don’t leave me— !>
I felt Hanh’s arm slip through my grip, and I skidded to a halt. “Hurry!” the resident shouted.
“There’s one more! He just fell…”
Then something smashed my head from above, knocking me down. A piece of broken pipe clattered beside me. I attempted to stand but lost balance. The ground was starting to tremble again.
Momentarily disoriented, I blinked my eyes open.
Shaking my throbbing head, I blinked some more and realized I was surrounded by a complete darkness. I no longer heard any sound of people, only the sudden calm that was more unnerving than anything.
I startled as a choking gasp burst through the heavy silence.
“Hanh, is that you?” I almost shrieked.
“Are you okay? Please talk to me!” I pleaded, crawling blindly on all fours, grimacing as the glass shards scraped my bare hands. If only I had a flashlight…
Frantically, I dug into my pockets. I had it! I yelped in joy, held it out in my shaking hand and clicked it on.
Just inches from me, a pale, bloodshot eye stared, wide-open, pupil-less.
I backpedaled with a scream, dropping the penlight.
The feeble illumination as the penlight rolled away revealed a crouched, emaciated girl in a tattered dress, barely out of toddlerhood. Her face partly covered by long, tangled colorless hair matted with streaks of blood. Her skin impossibly pallid, almost translucent.
Slowly, the wraith of a girl turned her eyes away from me. Paralyzed in my spot, I followed her gaze to the ground. There, Hanh lay sprawled underneath the girl, clutched in her hands, heaving for breath. She lowered her head and burrowed into him, as if seeking warmth. I could see his splayed arms go rigid, fingers grasping in vain.
“P…Please,” I stuttered out. “Get away from him.”
A sudden gush of wind slapped at my face as the ghostly howl assaulted my ears.
<Don’t leave me don’t leave me don’t leave meeee>
“I won’t leave you!” I yelled out, feeling my mind loosing grip on reality. I could not think. I was certain this was the end. She was going to kill us.
“He came back because he knew you were scared. We want to help. Let us help!”
The girl raised her head and turned her hollow eyes to me, boring into me. A chill ran down my spine.
<…help me… mommy help me… mommy…>
She reached up with her spindly arm. Small, white fingers grazed my cheek, down my neck, then found my trembling hand. I squeezed my eyes shut in terror. Get her off of him, I need to get her off of him!
“Sweetie,” I ventured, straining to keep my voice even. “I want you to come over this way, okay? Right now, he needs my help, so I want you to come sit over here, okay?” I said, tapping the ground behind me. My pleading voice came octaves higher, almost sounding like a stifled shriek.
The puny battery of the penlight was draining away, the flickering light warning of impending black-out.
Slowly, the girl slithered off Hanh and sidled up against me. Clamping my teeth to keep from screaming, I scrambled to his side and shook his shoulder. With a weak groan, he murmured.
An unbidden image of lifeless Miguel flashed in my mind. Choking back tears, I peeled off my warm-up jacket to wrap his freezing body, and pulled him onto my lap.
The girl stared with her wide, expressionless eyes. I almost expected her to reach up and strangle my neck. She did not. Instead, in a soundless, forlorn gesture, she crouched into a fetal position and wept.
<…mommy mommy mommy…>
The penlight flickered for the last time, plunging us into pitch black darkness once again. I rocked back and forth, feeling the last remnant of our body warmth drain away into the void of the despairing ghost. It occurred to me that I should try shouting for help or attempt to crawl out, but my mind and body were becoming sluggish.
I will find your mommy, I thought.
I will find her for you, if you’d let us get out of here alive…
I was told later, to my disbelief, that the time we were trapped in that darkness spanned only half an hour at most, the time it took for the firefighters to arrive and remove the rubble to get to us. As much as I was speechless at such an implausible claim, they were also dumbfounded by the severity of hypothermia we suffered during that “short” period of time, requiring the grueling ritual of a hospital stay.
With an emphatic lecture on the importance of a follow-up visit for concussion, I was deemed normal enough to go home on the second day. Before I left the hospital, I dropped in on Hanh, who was also getting ready to be discharged. When I walked into his room, I was greeted by warm hugs from the wife and Hanh himself, looking much aged now with dark circles under the eyes.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise when a little girl, about four years of age, scampered off from the bed where she had been playing, and clung onto Hanh’s leg. He gently pried off her arms and whispered something about ice-cream. Excited, she skipped out of the room, dragging her mother behind her.
I nodded with a new insight. Had he obsessed with the lost child haunting the underground corridor because he saw his own girl in his mind?
He did not recall much. He said the last thing he remembered was running over to the terrified girl letting out screams that shook the corridor and hurtled whirlwinds, and held her tight in his arms in an attempt to calm her down.
He listened intently, as I recounted the words of the girl in the dark corridor. And we solemnly agreed that we had to find who she was.
The lower level incident was blamed on a faulty structure that happened to crumble down at an unfortunate. The hospital’s safety officers and engineers only shook their heads at the ruin and claimed that it was impossible to explain the windstorm in such a narrow, underground corridor. They came up with a tentative suggestion: it might have been a case of mass hysteria.
Regardless, Hanh and I were satisfied that the corridor never opened again. The hospital administration had decided that repairing the damage was not worth the cost, and filled the hollow space instead. There were always rumors – a hospital must have haunting stories as a rule – but with the corridor gone, no kids at Angels died under such bizarre circumstances as Miguel.
Hanh continued working at Angels as if nothing had changed. He had always loved the place. After all, it was his second childhood home. And the presence of the invisible children, an idea I never got over feeling disturbed by, was as mundane and normal to him as a midnight potluck in the break room. I, on the other hand, harbored mixed feelings of indebtedness and loathing. There were times when the memories of the trauma haunted my dreams and I wished for nothing more than to be able to put Angels behind and find a fresh start in a completely new place.
And yet, I could never put Angels behind. I branched out into public health, disaster planning, and even pediatric psychology, all the while keeping my home base at Angels. I had gained an assistant professorship at a local college of nursing, which provided me with the resources I needed for my research. Under the guise of studying “urban children’s psychological response to natural disasters in the context of socioeconomic inequity,” I amassed stacks of information on the earthquake that shattered Angels in 1994.
I pored over any details I could get my hands on. I called, stalked, pleaded with whoever turned out to be in the vicinity of the hospital when the ground shook. I continued this personal project with only one goal: to find the way for the lost child of the underground corridor, to find the mommy this nameless girl continued to cry for.
I faced the eager student still waiting for me to speak. What could I possibly tell her about a place that conjured a myriad of emotions, memories, and horrors?
“It is a great hospital. You’ll learn a lot there.” I answered with great solemnity that so often accompanied such an unoriginal statement. I cleared my throat and tried again, with an effort to sound more genuine. “It’s always difficult when you start, no matter where you go.”
I wish you a smoother road ahead than the one I had, I continued in my head.
Wanting to avoid a protracted conversation, I pretended to look at my watch, wished her a good luck, and hurried to my office where my homework for the last decade awaited me.
Now let’s go find your mommy.
My little shadow’s hollow eyes never blinked, only watched silently.
Disclaimer: I know nothing about a real full-scale exercise. I totally made it up.
Thank you for reading!Last edit by Joe V on Nov 19, '12
tokebi has '10' year(s) of experience. From 'California'; Joined Mar '10; Posts: 413; Likes: 865.1Nov 19, '12 by tokebiI actually planned from the beginning for a side story, a prequel, to show exactly that. But it just didn't seem right to attach it right after the ending above. Not to mention, it's not even written yet, haha! But it's in my outline, really!
So it looks like there will be a part 4 after all... I won't say when because I don't want to make myself a liar.
Thank you all for reading!