The children came first. It started with one child perched at the end of the flowered bedspread, holding the tall bedpost while jumping up and down, jiggling the mattress. Even the IV pole at the side of the bed wiggled a little.
The patient—obviously a man of importance, otherwise he wouldn’t be in this room—rubbed at his eyes and blinked. What’s this kid doing here? This kid! Tiny, large-eyed, brown, barefoot, a too-large t-shirt and a sagging disposable diaper half undone, skinny like he—or she—lived on scraps in an alley. And yet this kid still had enough energy to hop up and down on the bed, over and over again.
In spite of himself, the patient groaned. The bouncing bed made his chest hurt, made his arms and legs hurt. His head didn’t feel so great either. He fumbled for the call button. A red light blinked on.
The child continued to jump, now locking eyes with the man under the bedspread. The man shuddered, repelled. He’d spent his life avoiding children like this.
Where the hell is that nurse?
The kid continued to jump, up and down, staring with those big eyes.
Well finally! One of many nurses and one of many doctors entered the room. The child stopped jumping and disappeared. No, wait! Now the kid was hiding behind the big rose-colored armchair, watching him with those eyes.
“Get that kid outta here!” The patient could hardly say the words before a fit of coughing overtook him.
The nurse and doctor glanced at each other. The patient could almost read their minds. They think I’m hallucinating, he though indignantly. He tried to point at the chair, but his arm barely lifted from the mattress.
The nurse checked his vitals and tapped results into a bedside computer screen.
The doctor looked on. His cool glance was neutral. The man in the bed wasn’t used to anything but looks of fawning admiration, fear, or sometimes naked dislike—cool appraisal was something new. And didn’t his eyes look a bit like that kid over there? Brown. Brown eyes. Brown eyes with something unreadable in them.
The nurse whispered something to the doctor and left the room. The doctor adjusted the IV, checked the readouts on various machines, gave a small smile and left the room.
No one had done anything about that kid! And now he was back, jumping on the bed. This had to be some kind of plot. Yeah, his enemies had probably snuck the kid into his room. And the doctor and the nurse were behind it. Yeah.
The patient decided he’d no longer trust the doctor, or the nurse, and maybe not even the hospital. Could he get an airlift to one of his many properties? He’d get better there, he knew it. There were other doctors. Better doctors. Who could he call?
He tried to lift his legs to kick the kid. He shouted, “Damn you!” He shouted at least a hundred times. The kid kept jumping. His hands were dirty. He was smearing germs all over the bedpost, holding it like that.
The patient finally stopped shouting. Instead he was coughing, at least a hundred times, mouth open, gasping for air. Then a little girl crawled onto the bed. Where’d she come from?
Why did he have dirty children on his bed? Wasn’t this the best, the greatest, hospital in all the
land? The best, the greatest, for him?
The little girl watched the patient coughing, then gravely put her small feather-light hand on his lips. Every time he coughed he felt that small hand cover his mouth and then rise again. She watched for his coughs and then covered his mouth like a little mother rebuking an unsanitary child. Was she making fun of him? Who was she to cover his mouth like that?
The other child pulled a third kid onto the bed, another dirty kid. They held hands and jumped. The mattress shuddered and the patient moaned. He tried to grab the call button but a fourth child held it out of reach, laughing.
An aide came into the room carrying a meal tray. The children stood still and watched as she rolled a bedside table over and set the tray in front of the patient, then pressed the button to raise the bed so the patient could come sitting. She almost patted the patient on the shoulder by way of reassurance but at the last minute withdrew her hand. There was a look in her eyes then, something like the look the children had. She left the room. She didn’t do a damn thing about those kids!
Before he could lift his fork, the kids were all over his lunch, smearing it into their mouths with grubby little hands. The patient wasn’t that hungry anyhow—he couldn’t smell and taste like he used to—and anger took what was left of his appetite.
“How dare you?” he shrieked. He flailed at the kids with arms and hands that used to be strong enough to take what he wanted, but instead the children merely pushed his hands away with their finger tips. Finally exhausted he fell asleep, half waking every time he coughed.
Sometimes people came into the room to draw the curtains or open the curtains or take his pulse or give him medicine or food or ice chips. He hardly cared. The children never left and no one did anything about them either. All he could do was cough except for that one time he was able to waddle to the toilet before collapsing back into bed. The next day (was it the next day?) people with video cameras came and a man carrying a freshly dry-cleaned suit, shirt and tie. The patient waved them away.
And now it was like every time he coughed, more people came into the room. They weren’t all children anymore, either. They sat in the chairs. They sat on the side of his bed. They opened his closets. They shredded blank sheets of paper and threw Sharpies out the window. They overturned his meal tray, scattering flecks of lime jello across the rug. They let the children play with the lights, on-off-on-off, until the patient thought he was going crazy. And kids kept jumping on the bed.
They stared at him during sponge baths and painful enounters with bedpans. They stared during catheters and tubes. The children threw toilet paper out of reach, so that he had to have his tush wiped like a baby by brown-eyed nurses who looked at him like the children did.
“I knew social distancing was a hoax,” he thought, during one lucid moment. Those hospitals all lied. They let all kinds of people into intensive care! People dying alone? It was all fake news, fabricated by reporters with nothing better to do. And the experts were no better. No, all these people in his room right now merely proved he’d been right to carry on as he had, ignoring the masks and recommendations of sissy scientists. He’d show them. As long as there was a breath of life in his body, he’d get even. He was still the most powerful man in the world, wasn’t he?
Children stared at him as if they could hear his thoughts. The adults just watched him. Were they supporters? Enemies? There wasn’t a red hat in the room, so no, probably not supporters. But if they were enemies what were they waiting for?
The patient grew exhausted waiting for them to make the first move. The little girl no longer covered his mouth every time he coughed. People played card games at his desk, children clung to parents and cuddled in the armchair, and there were people passing their fingers over his body, leaving their initials and names imprinted on his very own flesh. If he could manage to turn on his side and stare at his arm, he would see hundreds—no thousands!—of names written in the smallest of scripts, like tattoos left by microbes.
And then one day, when he noticed a nurse passing through the thick crowd of visitors, he saw that when she drew the curtains, she was the only one with a shadow. And then he knew. It was his next move they were waiting for.