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Steve Jensen
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beyondtheveil.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe 2010

Beyond the Veil

 

Steve Jensen

 

 

 

The new girl was considered ripe for the picking by her colleagues, and so they told her of The Room of Death and Other Tales. The ward fell quiet, as if on cue, as the older women dragged their plastic chairs closer to the center of the nursing station. The two veterans seemed to loom over Bernice, their low voices deliberately making their storytelling intimate, atmospheric, unsettling.

 

      "This your first nursing job?" Terri asked. Bernice had no time to reply properly before Avril butted-in.

 

      "Oh, honey, it might just be your last! Ha, just wait 'til you get a call from Room 19 and you find—"

 

      "There's no one there," Terri said, "It's empty. You'll learn to ignore those calls, just like we did in time."

 

      They're just warming up, Bernice thought, Here it comes. . . .

 

      "Why's that?"

 

      Avril's turn, it seemed. She attempted a serious, “po”-faced expression but her lips trembled a little, the sign of imminent laughter.

 

      "They don't call it The Room of Death for no reason, y' know. People have seen things there."

 

      "Frightening things," Terri added for effect, "It's like it's cursed."

 

Despite herself, Bernice started to smile and the others suddenly looked offended, disappointed that their teasing game might have to end prematurely.

 

      Avril recited a line she'd read in a magazine somewhere. She thought it sufficiently dramatic. " ‘Hey, we know of which we speak.’ "

 

      Bernice looked at them from eye to eye and considered her luck, or lack of it. She had been looking forward to working here but her co-workers seemed to be so graceless and . . . mean; that was the unkind word she fought against, initially, but it fitted nonetheless. For the sake of propriety, she reluctantly continued to play her part.

 

      "What on earth happened in Room 18?"

 

      "19," Avril corrected. She perched on the edge of her chair, looking like a particularly miserable vulture.

 

Her partner in crime fiction took up the story. "It's said that whoever sees the shadow in Room 19 is fated to die." Her smug look abruptly faded when Bernice interrupted.

 

      "But how can you have seen it if you're still alive?"

 

      There was a swift exchange of glances. Eventually Terri tried to rescue the situation.

 

      "Well, we've heard about it so many times. Anyway, that's why 19 is unoccupied—always. We don't put anyone in there if we can help it. The cleaners won't even step in the place."

 

      "It must smell just awful," Bernice said, but her weak joke was wasted on them. At that moment, a call light went on, the signal that a patient wanted assistance. Either the light was jammed or the occupant of Room 19 was very impatient.

 

      The nurses fell silent and Bernice instantly lost her sense of humor.

 

      All three women looked away from the light panel. Avril studied her nails. Terri set about tidying some documents. Bernice distracted herself by fidgeting with her wedding band and watching two doctors striding past the station, heading for the east end of the ward. She wondered absently what the men were up to, as there seemed to be no obvious reason for their rushing.

 

      Fortunately, a patient was calling out loud from the open ward in front of the desk. But before Bernice could raise herself fully, her colleagues were gone; obviously they welcomed any excuse to get away from the harsh glare of that insistent light.

 

      Bernice tried to forget about it. She even smiled when she thought of the silly, third-hand story and its artless relation. Though this was her first nursing job, she'd heard many such tales during her on-site training years but most of those tales were heartwarming—beautiful—in fact. Most charming were the deathbed visions, when the dying imagined that their loved ones, already passed on, had come to take them away from this imperfect world. Though sad, these anecdotes were perhaps enough to convince even the most skeptical person that there might be something beyond our limited experience, beyond our faith in mere knowledge.

 

      All was still again. She noticed that Terri and Avril lingered at a patient's bedside, watching Bernice all the while. Were they wondering— hoping even—that she would attend to the “ghost” in Room 19?

 

It's time, she thought, to show those two . . .

 

      But the courage of her conviction began to ebb away as she strode along the corridor. Even the sound of her footsteps, soft-shoed as she was—began to disturb her, as the very silence seemed charged. The thought drifted, ghostlike, through her mind that she was leaving life far behind; in accompaniment, the noise from the ward remained with her but was as distant as a childhood memory.

 

      She told herself that the nurses' story was nonsense, perhaps even complete fiction. This notion steeled her as she finally neared the corridor's end. Her breath was visible, so cold was this part of the ward.

 

If I make it back, she thought, laughing inwardly, I'll try to get something done about the heating— and the light.

 

Almost invisible in the darkness, Room 19's door looked forebodingly black, even though she knew it must be light brown like all the others. She groped for the door handle and walked into the room.

 

      Wherever she looked, wherever she could make out bulky shapes in the pitch dark, medical equipment old and new met her gaze. But the thin light from outside soon departed as the door slowly closed behind her. The moon, breaking free from cover, provided just a little relief from the darkness which now shrouded everything within; everything except the privacy curtain surrounding the bed.

 

      Bernice didn't dare touch it. Its pristine condition was somehow more frightening than if it had been black, dirty, and torn. The tall, sheer white curtain caused a torrent of grim images, surreal associations, to course through her everyday thoughts: an outsized gravestone; a veil which must not be lifted; an imposing, unquestionable boundary between life and death.

 

      She shivered and her breath escaped in a slowly twisting cloud. The sight comforted her somehow, and her resolve began to return.

 

      She was about to leave when she saw the shadow for the first time.

 

      It moved, ever so slightly, behind the curtain. But her initial shock— and terror—gradually yielded to a semblance of recognition: there were no monsters here—the shadow, if indeed that's what it was, was human in form.

 

      Although Bernice could discern no facial features, the dark figure had the shape of a woman, perhaps elderly, and frail. As the figure seemed to fade back into darkness, Bernice felt relief flooding through her. She reached for the curtain, welcoming the jarring noise of its progress along the “u”-shaped metal rail.

 

      The glint of gold caught her eye. The moon's stark glare had fastened on the wedding ring, dwarfing the patient’s thin fingers. The shadow had not vanished; instead, it lay prone upon the bed. Now Bernice was free to stare at its face.

 

At last, she recognized the old woman's features, for they were her own.

 

      Bernice staggered backwards and turned to leave. In that moment, light flooded in through the door and she saw the medical staff enter the room.

 

          They didn't seem to notice her and she felt nothing as their bodies brushed her own, such was their haste. As they reached for her, Bernice could no longer see her breath in the air.

 

She could no longer see anything.

 

 

 

 

Steven Paul Jensen was born in South Wales, UK, in 1965.

 

He is seeking publication of his first novella, The Poison of a Smile while writing his second book, Ariele – A Ghost Story

 

His short fiction has appeared in The Gloom Cupboard and Creature Feature anthology. His nonfiction has appeared in The Immortal StoryCinematique issue, Sein und Werden Magazine.

He has published regular nonfiction contributions in The Black Glove Magazine

 

His homepage: http://stevejensen.eu

In Association with Fossil Publications