Walking into the room was like becoming one with cleanliness. Starchy, plastic, cleanliness that cloyed the air and grated the skin.
The first thing Jam spotted was the squat, cheap table, stacked with neat towers of magazines to form a city of colour and age.
One building was composed of National Geographic, garish yellow in the dull room.
Jam glanced at the room’s two other occupants briefly, then sat down. His eyes wandered to the stack of yellow, the top floor the most current: November 2014.
His arm reached for it, and as he did he studied the other levels of the building. He blinked in surprise at the spine of the lowest floor: October 1888.
Jam shook his head and turned his attention beyond, his arm retracted.
One of other occupants stood against the wall, and Jam studied him first. The man was clearly a nurse or an orderly of the hospital, gowned in pressed white and staring fiercely at the wall opposite, above Jam’s head. Either side of the man there was a doorway, the type that was opened by pressing a bar in their middle, both of them unmarked. Presumably, they led to the operating rooms. The one to the left seemed cool and clear through its window, while the one to the right seemed a little duller, warmer.
Perhaps the lights had different globes.
The man between them, almost like a guard in his posture, had a thin, angular body and a sharp face, almost like a dog’s, with sleek black hair and dark eyes that didn’t quite seem human.
Jam rotated his entire body towards the third occupant, a seated, dusty man of indeterminate age, and found that he was already being watched in return.
The seated man nodded, which Jam took to be an honest gesture.
“What’re you in for, my friend?” he said.
His voice was soft, cutting warmly through the abrasive air.
Jam touched his palm to his chest.
“The ticka’, mate. Got a bit o’ trouble in there. Well, so I’m told.”
The other man nodded sympathetically. “How bad?”
Jam shrugged. “Bad ‘nough to be in here. Didn’t understand much o’ what I was told. Tho’, I do believe I’m to get a new ‘un.”
The other man smiled, and put his feet up on the table, tilting one of the towers precariously. The dog man narrowed his eyes at the movement, but made no sound.
“An’ you?” said Jam. “What’s got ya?”
“A bit of this, a bit of that. I’ve spent a lot of time in places like this, one loses track of the exact reasons why.”
Jam shrugged. “Don’t wanna tell me, tha’s fine. What’s ya name, then?”
“I’m known around here as Rus. Ain’t that right, Anu?”
The dog man twitched his head slightly, his face unreadable.
Jam raised an eyebrow. “Frequent flyer?”
Rus winked. “The people here are my friends, if one could extend such a title upon them. I don’t have time for such in the real world.”
“Unfortunately. What’s your name?”
Rus tilted his head. “How’d you earn that?”
A smile crinkled Jam’s cheek.
“Used ta be a traffic controller. Ya know, stand in the middle o’ tha road like a great big nob wit a stop ‘nd go sign. Thing is, I was bloody shit at it, right up ’til I got fired. Caused a lotta traffic jams, the other blokes slapped tha’ name on me.”
Rus appeared thoughtful. “Aren’t traffic controllers a little outdated?”
Jam shrugged. “Not when I was doin’ it. Had other jobs afta, thas jus’ where tha name come from. I’m old now, can’t ya see?”
“Well, yes. I suppose that makes more sense.”
“Aye,” said Jam. “So. How long ya bin waitin’ here, Rus?”
“Oh, I couldn’t say. A long time,” he replied, pausing. His eyes appeared to be looking at something not in the same room. “Feels like centuries. Seeing as I’ve got some pretty specific problems, I’d imagine they need some pretty specific surgeons.”
“Fair enough. Ya really don’ know why ya here?”
Rus shrugged, and took his feet off the table.
The door to Jam’s left burst open at that moment, and a pair of middle-aged folk squabbled in. A man; on crutches, and a woman, both with facial expressions that said they’d rather be anywhere that in that over-clean, pine-needle room, walking with heavy and impatient steps that amplified their overzealous bodies. They sank into adjoining chairs after their entrance as if the walk had tired them beyond recuperation, then proceeded to both stare at the dog man.
Jam frowned at them, and Rus looked at his watch.
“This is going to take forever,” said the woman, louder than politeness might permit. “There’s already two people here!”
“Yes, dear. But we can’t do much about that. Besides, looks like there’s two theatres. Shouldn’t be too long.”
“This is not the fudging reason we pay for private health care.”
Larry nodded patiently. “We pay that to skip the queue to get here, Patty. Nothing it can do once we’re here. Besides,” he soothed, “I’m only getting my knee worked on, I’m sure these other people are in more of a rush.”
“You’re kneecap’s completely unattached!”
“It’s the pinnacle of Buddhism, love.”
“It’s fine, dear.”
Rus sent the husband a sympathetic smile.
Patty intercepted and returned a fierce, pudgy leer, then blew a puff of high-pitched air through her mouth. Her hand then dived towards her bag, rustling for the phone which she then turned her attention to.
Jam sniffed the air, then looked at the couple. “You folk burn some toast ‘fore ya come here?”
Patty glanced at the intrusion, squinting. “Do we look stupid to you, country Jim?”
“No, ma’am. Jus’ the smell o’ burnin’ come in with ya’, is all.”
She huffed again, and the phone was returned to the fore of her face.
“She’s just worried about me,” smiled Larry. “Can’t help you with the smell, though. Not sure.”
Jam let his shoulders rise and fall. “Righto.”
The entrance swung open again and another, younger woman stood behind it for a moment, surveying the room hesitantly. She slipped through the gap as the doors returned towards her, then stood, swaying slightly, nose wrinkled. She was worn well beyond her years, as if the soul of someone on the brink of the afterlife was hidden inside a thirty-year-old’s skin.
Her eyes wavered between the seats, as if deciding which piece of plastic was the most strategically sound. Her bald head gleamed faintly, beautified f; by a faint sprinkle of downy hair.
After a fleeting moment of fierce eye contact with Jam, she walked straight past him; then slowly traversed the city of magazines to perch next to Rus.
He nodded at her kindly, and she made a faint attempt at returning the favour.
“Evening,” said Rus warmly.
The woman blinked. “Is it?”
Rus smiled and glanced at the wall above Patty, her eyes reflecting the screen in her lap.
“Maybe. That clock’s telling me it’s four, be it P.M or A.M? That’s anyone’s guess.”
The new woman nodded slowly, her eyes glassy.
Jam inclined his head toward her. “What’s ya name, love?”
Her eyes shifted towards him, the darkness under them waxy in the light.
“Ya look as good as I feel, Anna. My name’s Jam.”
Her nose wriggled, and she looked thoughtful. “Strawberry or raspberry?”
Jam paused for a moment, laughed. “Take ya pick. Never ‘eard that one before, somehow. Though, I’m more a blackberry man.”
“What brings you to our fine gathering, Anna?” said Rus.
She tapped the crook of her elbow lightly, birdlike. “Torn ligament.”
This caught Patty’s attention, and the phone was lowered to her lap.
“A torn ligament?”
“Just the one? Bah! Larry’s torn his kneecap clean off! Which was it, then?”
The woman’s face was blank. “They’re not entirely sure. One of two.”
Patty launched into terrible laughter, and Jam’s face reflected the cringe of his gut.
Anna’s face hardened. “They didn’t want to do the scan. I’ve got a metal plate in my head.”
The laughter ceased.
The dog man gave a polite cough, as if to remind them of his existence.
“Mr. Krubek. Please, step through,” he said, his voice like dry sand.
One of the dog man’s hands gestured to the left, his fingers curling slightly at the tips.
Larry looked up for a moment, glanced at his wife briefly, then stood and moved across the room. Jam detected relief in his eyes. The door clunked as he pressed against it, the dog man walking behind him, and a blast of cool, pleasant air blew out into the waiting room.
After a few minutes the dog man returned, and fixed his black eyes on Patty.
“Mrs. Krubek. If you would follow me through the other door?”
The plastic inside her face scrunched together. “Why?”
“That is procedure.”
She got up in a huff, clutching at her bag with a leathery rasp and struggling to escape her seat.
Patty followed the man through the door, which was swung open with a metallic groan, and a burst of hot, dry air clawed into the room. The temperature seemed to rise almost immediately.
“Thank God,” muttered Anna.
Rus smiled wryly, but held his silence.
“Seemed like tha air conditionin’ was broke down there,” said Jam.
“Excellent,” said Anna. “Her makeup will run.”
Jam gave another laugh, and laced his fingers.
The tower of yellow caught his eyes again, and for a moment his mind wandered.
Soon the dog man returned, and in the instant before the door grated shut, a terrible, faint sound whispered to Jam’s ears: a high-pitched howl, like an animal in pain.
Jam frowned, the sound cut off by the door.
“Ya hear that, Rus?”
“Like a, scream or somethin’…never mind. Musta been imaginin’.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” said Anna, scratching her pale scalp.
The dog man stared down at Jam for the briefest of moments, but his eyes were returned to the wall before Jam could match them.
“Anu, was it?” said Jam, staring at those tiny eyes.
He was rewarded with a sharp nod.
“Any idea when I’m headin’ in?”
“In due time.”
“Not real helpful, are ya?”
A silence lulled, briefly, in which Jam studied the yellow tower again.
“Ms. Fitzpatrick?” said the dog man, slicing the quiet into dry halves.
“Yes?” said Anna.
“Your surgeon has been delayed. It may take some time.”
“Oh. How do you even know that?”
He said nothing, and her arms crossed. “Well, how long?”
“I can’t say.”
Jam eyed her bald head and tired eyes, and felt something slide into place.
He felt old.
Rus turned his body to Jam, his face grave. “Jam.”
“You should go.”
“Do you remember coming here? Do you remember driving here? Which hospital are you at?”
Jam nodded. “‘Course I do. Drove ‘ere in mah truck, I’m at St. Vincent’s.”
“What’s the last thing you remember, before walking in here?”
Jam frowned, and then frowned harder.
He then studied Rus’ face, as if the answer might lay hidden there.
“I remember a mask comin’ to my face. One o’ those plasticy ‘uns.”
“Do you remember walking into this room?”
Jam appeared troubled, his lined fingers interlacing.
“You should leave, my friend. Now, back the way you came. Before it’s too late.”
The dog man watched on, impassive. His mouth seemed more like a snout than before, his eyes small and black.
Anna glanced up briefly, then gave a slight wave.
“See you, Blackberry,” she whispered.
“Alright then,” said Jam.
Slowly, he stood, lumbering towards the entry.
He turned back, studying Rus curiously.
“‘Fore I go. Rus. Tha’ short for Rusty?”
The man shook his head.
A man cloaked in pale green stood over the wrinkled body, his masked gaze fixed on the bloody, exposed chest cavity laid open by silvery claws on the bed before him. His eyes alternated to the cardiac monitor, across the room, then back to the gaping hole.
After a few silent seconds, beeping waves filled the screen, and the head surgeon gave a sigh of relief.
“Jesus, I thought we’d lost him there. Donor heart’s accepted. Let’s close up.”