Their cell phones were still ringing. They were the EMT’s first words when hesitantly and anonymously telling his story to the local reporter.
Working inside the hall he had been assigned a wet body, a hole where a breast should’ve been, and closed the victim’s still horrified eyes—a terrifying sight which had caused him to vomit. Exiting a room previously reserved for learning, he pushed the gurney alone down the blood-marked corridor that no one of any age or status should be allowed to step into again no matter the gallons of bleach that were to be poured, the rear right wheel of the stretcher creaking every three hundred sixty degrees as it revolved. And then a ring. A song, actually. An old Miles Davis tune—trumpet blasting away—echoed in the tiled hall just as the gunfire had. Hours before.
The blaring melody belonged to “Freddie Freeloader”—the second track from the legendary Kind of Blue. And, oddly, it seemed okay. Okay that such a song was playing after such an event. Because even though spring was working its way into the region, bringing along its subtle breeze and its persistent sunshine and its budding plants just as it always had, there was something missing from that day. There had been an emptiness—a hole—in the world, and that was dangerous because that’s always dangerous. So Miles Davis filled the emptiness with a forty-six year old recording programmed to a cell phone ring.
The EMT slowed his steps, pushing the gurney at the shattered pace of a man who would know this lamenter’s path by heart before the day was through. The creaking rear right wheel slowed its screech—now less frequent in its call yet more elongated when its time came. Either way it didn’t matter, being largely drowned out by Miles and his trumpet.
But Miles’ song was interrupted by a bird singing except it couldn’t be a bird singing because they all had flown towns away after the first gunshot had hijacked the halls. The EMT, having grown up just south of there in the small town of Woolwine, recognized the song to be that of a dove—a low melancholic whistle that might compliment Miles in another song or another key but certainly not “Freddie Freeloader.” The dove’s song was singing from another phone in another pocket of another body and the EMT thought must be a nature lover before correcting himself. Must’ve been.
He shook his head because the already senseless scene was making less sense as each moment passed. The dove is the bird of peace but looking around the EMT said aloud there is no peace. He attempted to breathe deep and count to fifty. It had worked for him in the past at other sites with other blood—mumbling the numbers in his head, breath dropping into his abdomen, in the nose and out the mouth. But it was only a six-count before a persistent high-pitched beep pushed into the din, joining the wheel and Miles and the dove.
Unmistaken in its source, the EMT looked down and saw the phone sitting in a puddle of burgundy, vibrating clockwise. It was moving too fast to be real time though and so were his thoughts. He altogether stopped pushing the cart—the last creak of the oil-hungry wheel extending its cry in an attempt to have its voice heard above the babel that was Blacksburg.
The gurney slowed to stillness as he leaned his latex powder gloved hand against the wall for support. I don’t want anymore he said to himself. But he knew this was his job and he knew how important it was and he knew how important it was going to be. He promised himself that he would finish—that he could finish—if he only took one moment away to clear his thoughts.
I’m in Alabama he said, no other living being in the hallway to hear. I’m in Alabama at grandpa’s wooded land with the cabin on the side of the mountain where the town’s lights seem to be a direct reflection of the stars. I’m in Alabama walking the trails where the blackberries grow fresh and you can eat them right off the bush (they taste so goddam refreshing on a summer day of one hundred degrees) and there’s always a cooler full of ice cold root beer sitting outside the cabin’s door. An involuntary vision for when the breathing and counting fail—his family’s land from when he was young. Sometimes memories are clearer than facts and in this case the mountain was in fact a small hill and actually located in Mississippi, but he couldn’t remember that so it didn’t matter.
I’m in Alabama he said again as he returned to the hallway and placed his latex powder gloved hands back on the gurney. He began to push—the ringing phones now a muffled murmur—and focused on the view from that Alabama mountain. But Miles was only a few bars in and the gurney had only gone about ten feet down the hall. And those concerned on the other end of Miles and the dove and the beep were so far from alone. There were more phones and more bodies and therefore more calls.
A digitized version of “Alleluia” played in the next room on the right, never feeling more inappropriate as the EMT’s concentration was drowned by memories of the First Baptist Church of Woolwine and the happiness of sitting on those pews in God’s House seeming like nothing more than a poorly told joke. Meanwhile, Alabama was fading with each heartbeat because that was part of God’s Country and would He send Sinatra down from Heaven to sing “The Lady is a Tramp” opposite Miles’ horn in the form of a flip phone stuffed in the pocket of some…child…in the room just behind the EMT as was happening now?
The memories of Alabama evaporated and rained him back to Virginia—the homecoming heathenish and hostile. Convulsing with a pain that jolted through every extremity before centering in his abdomen and clueless how to end this hell or even if he could, the EMT simply cried out please. Please. He said the second one quieter because he wasn’t quite sure that anyone or anything was listening anyway and if that’s the gospel truth then what’s the point. But Miles kept playing and the dove kept singing and the beep kept beeping (rotating in its puddle) and “Alleluia” kept chanting and Sinatra kept crooning and two other phone rings joined in with tunes that the EMT couldn’t even recognize because it was all kneaded together into one solid melody-less hymn now and he was so far from fresh blackberries and ice cold root beer.
Please. Please. Please. Please…
As the technological choir sang from the very human soul that was life and death that day, the EMT sat down in the bloody hallway. He sat down with his back to the wall, pulling his knees to such a position that he could rest his forehead on the two exceptionally bony pillows. Breathing through his nose, he vomited through his mouth—although little actually came out because he had skipped breakfast that morning and already vomited previously upon seeing the first girl’s eyes. Then he cried. He cried because he knew who was calling. And he knew why they were calling. And he knew that no one would answer.
But as the rings climaxed together in song, conducted by an invisible man in an invisible tuxedo in front of an invisible orchestra—Fortissimo—it seemed that some lost god from some lost heaven where gods still existed decided that the EMT had hurt enough.
The ringing stopped.
He lifted his head up off his knees. A silence—just the EMT and the crimson-stained hallway with the echoes and the dead shut-eyed victim on the cart. A moment of silence. An opportunity to gain perspective, if only for one second. Because he blindly believed that he might be able to work again—to get through this hell and to get back to Alabama or Mississippi or wherever with only that one second of clarity. The EMT stood up.
But the lost god had to move on to some other’s pain in some other place and there was still the sickness of uncertainty felt by thousands outside those walls and so Miles started playing again—“Freddie Freeloader” from forty-six years ago. And his trumpet was howling and the hallway was echoing and the blood was drying and the loved ones were weeping and the religious were praying and the hopeless were nodding and the world was watching and the dead remained dead and the EMT just sat back down and returned his forehead to his bony knees and listened to Miles blow his song.
Kyle Bradstreet is the author of the New York produced plays Alcohol. A Story From Abeyance, The Café, Christmas Etc., The Edge and Patrick’s Story. As a screenwriter, Kyle has written for The Philanthropist (NBC), Manhunt (HBO) and The Borgias (Canal+/Lagardère). His fiction has been published in Blood Lotus and Third Wednesday.