The usual ambiance of the ICU greeted me as I stepped into the hall. My head pounded. We had been busy today with several critically ill patients who needed the support of more than just their one assigned nurse. Glancing at my watch, I noticed it was 5 pm. Two hours to go and I would be off for four whole days.
A cacophony of alarms and ringing phones sounded from the nurses’ station and people dressed in scrubs hurried about. As this shift’s charge nurse, I understood the way patients flowed through this busy Nashville Hospital system and how to get things done. With almost seven years in this unit, I excelled in coordinating the work of the day and was happy to assist in any room.
Though I was used to the pace, I would be the first to admit that this was a hard place to work. The patients were sick, and the stakes were high. Maladjusted egos led to tension in the typical doctor-nurse relationship, and the unit manager’s bias toward doctors only made things worse. I tried to stay out of the way and off her radar, but someone had to be the voice of reason sometimes. So yeah, this ICU was a hard place to be, especially for someone like me.
We had just finished a procedure in room eight and my back was stiff after standing in one position for a while. I took a lap or two around the oval-shaped unit, a chance to shake out my aching muscles and see what everyone else was up to.
Heading along the hall, I couldn’t help but notice the dark shadows that hovered along the walls, denser in some places than others. I recognized immediately these weren’t natural shadows in low-lit spaces. This was far from my first encounter with shadow beings. They lingered every day in almost every place, and more than a few kept residence in this ICU.
As I walked through the corridor, the shadows darted back quickly, as if plastering themselves against the wall would help them hide. At 28 years old, it still unnerved me when they suddenly moved away. This was a big part of the reason I’d gotten burned out only seven years into my career. Not everyone could see what I saw. Actually, since my grandmother’s death when I was eight, I’d never met anyone else who could see the things I did.
I had been able to see spirits as long as I could remember, and Grandma Edie had taught me to talk to some of them. Sometimes, they manifested as nearly solid, but still transparent, shimmery, apparitions. Those were the ones I could communicate with and they almost always needed something. My grandmother had explained that spirits see mediums like me as a glow to bright to ignore. She said they are drawn to us, and it’s our duty as one of the “gifted” to help.
That fact alone should probably have steered me away from working as an ICU nurse. Call it poor insight - but until I was a nurse, I hadn’t really appreciated how haunted a hospital could be. My grandmother had taught me to “close my doors” when I needed a break, but my defenses weren’t strong enough to hold them off for very long. And even my deepest concentration never completely cut out the shadows.
At work, it was draining to see a terrified spirit in the corner of the room during their own resuscitation attempts. Sometimes, they’d beg me to make it stop if they were ready to move on. Other times they were a frenetic energy, desperately wanting to hold on. In either case, I couldn’t talk directly to them around other people. My colleagues would think I was I’d lost my mind. “Stop CPR guys, this patient’s ghost is begging to be left alone,” would surely buy me some questioning gazes and a reputation as unhinged, at least. No, the only choice in the moment was to ignore them. Usually, they’d just yell louder. Helpless voices echoed so that only I could hear them. Then they followed me. Eventually, I’d get them alone somewhere, but not before their chaotic energy seeped into my very pores.
But the shadows? Those were altogether different. They were around all the time and stayed stonily silent. They lingered in corners and against walls, hiding among the natural shadows. My grandmother once told me that those spirit beings couldn’t hurt me. They’d been condemned just to watch us, unable to communicate. It seemed like its own sort of hell, or maybe a limbo-type existence.
As an adult, I realized that the dark shadows’ lack of communication did not equal a lack of intention. Experience taught me that the gathering of shadows in one area was a bad omen, at least in the ICU. I wasn’t sure if the shadows were a threat or just a creepy welcoming committee for the afterlife, but I wanted them to stay away from me and my patients. Having dealt with these things all my life, I knew the shadows would disburse as I walked through their space. As predicted, the shadows scattered ahead of my footsteps, like ravens taking flight.
A whoosh of something flew past my head and splattered against the wall mere inches in front of me. I stopped in my tracks. To my left, a greasy spot on the wall extended down toward the floor, a cream-colored mass at my feet. My eyes took a second to adjust. Was that…mashed potatoes?
A hard pelt landed on my shoulder. Then another hit me square in the gut. I startled, adrenaline revving to face an assault. Was someone throwing rocks at me? I looked around urgently, trying to get my bearings. “Hey, assholes! You’ll never take me alive!” A voice yelled from the patient room I stood outside of.
A wirey, crazed octogenarian man stood in the center of his hospital bed. The gown he wore nearly swallowed his delicate frame, glasses sat askew on his nose and a shock of gray hair pointed out in all directions. Within a moment I realized his right arm was poised to lob something else at me. Was that a dinner roll?
“Let me out of here!” He screamed as he unleashed a deluge of dinner tray projectiles.
“Sir, what in the world?” I couldn’t help but fuss as I made my way toward the man, arms up, protecting my head. I fought my way across the room, trying to dodge clumps of potatoes and meatloaf. Good grief, how much food did we serve for dinner?
My priority had to be to keep him from falling and cracking his skull. Or breaking a hip. “Sir, please come down from there.” I extended my hand up toward him, intending a kind gesture to signal my desire to help. “We don’t want you to fa-,” Splat.
A warm, oozing sensation rolled down my chest and into my cleavage. Disgust filled me as I looked down to see the brown goop making its way into my bra. I glanced up in time to realize that he had plenty more gravy on his plate. Another splat landed in the center of my face. The impish man cackled and flailed his arms about manically. “I told you shit-heads, you think you’re so smart, so strong,” he howled, “but you can’t fool me! I know my rights!” I didn’t need any psychic powers to know instantly that the man was about to fall.
The frail man’s face registered his unbalance at the same time I did. On pure instinct, I darted forward, just in time for all his 110 pounds to land directly in my arms against my chest with an “ooofff.”
“Sadie, come to my office,” Joan, the unit manager, said, taking in the mess in room two. She looked completely out of place in her smart suit, stylish black pumps, and straight hair in a practical, blunt bob. There was a trail of potatoes, gravy, meatloaf, and crumbled rolls on the floor that led into the hall. The floor at the end of the bed was a greasy smear where I had fallen, the impish man landing on top of me.
Other staff members came to my aid after hearing me yell for help. The elderly man was returned to bed, still howling about not being taken alive. After an assessment and a few x-rays, they deemed him safe with no injuries and sedated him to the benefit of us all. His primary nurse said he’d been mentally intact when she’d stepped away to help another nurse, so the food-launching fiasco had surfaced out of the blue.
“Sadie, now.” Joan’s expression was harsh and brokered no argument. I looked up at her as a blob of mashed potatoes dropped down my cheek and onto my shoulder. Classy, I thought. The look of absolute disgust that crossed my manager’s face sent a wave of fire through my veins. She blamed me for this situation. I could feel it. And I was about to catch hell for it. Knowing better than to argue here, I offered a brisk nod and followed her down the hall.
My feet squished in my shoes. Eww, were potatoes in there too? The smell of gravy drifted up from my chest, reminding me of the warm goo in my bra. My rage inside grew with every step. She would not blame me for this mess.
As we reached Joan’s office, I noticed the hall shadows congregating near the door. My approach pushed them back, flattening them against the walls. Bad omen. I entered the door and took a seat in the chair opposite the manager’s desk. She slung the door closed behind her and stalked around her desk to take her seat of power. She laced her hands together and leaned toward me, almost menacingly. “Sadie, what the hell was that?”
I’d expected her ire and doubt, but the aggressiveness of her accusation left me nearly speechless. “I-” I stuttered.
“That man could’ve been killed, Sadie.” Joan’s face twisted in what she must have thought was righteous fury. “What were you thinking?”
I blinked hard, barely able to disguise the fury that propelled my voice.
“I’m aware that he was in danger. That’s why I made myself his landing pad.”
Joan scoffed. “Did you pull him out of the bed?”
“What? Why would I do that?” I heard the hardening tone of my voice, but I couldn’t help it. I was essentially attacked and probably saved the man an injury at least, and she was accusing me of…of… what?
“Sadie, the man was on the floor with you underneath.”
“Joan,” I started, echoing her template. “He was standing on the bed when I found him, clearly confused, screaming, and throwing food. I tried to settle him, but when he started to fall, I did the only thing I could: let him land on me. Now he’s not injured, and in case you’re wondering, neither am I.”
Joan’s jaw ticked, and her eyes narrowed to slits. “He’s eighty-three years old, Sadie. A broken bone could be the end for him,” she said, completely ignoring my statement about my own well-being. “As it is, his family could sue us for letting him fall. There will be an incident report written, and when the risk management department calls, you better stick to the story that you were trying to catch him.”
“That will be easy, because it’s the truth,” I fumed.
Joan leaned back in her chair, still glaring at me. “You have it all figured out, don’t you? You think you’re so smart.”
“I’m sorry?” She’d lost me. Where was this going?
“A week ago, I had to defend you to John Brandon. Today, you’re having a food fight with an old man who wound up falling out of bed. You always seem to get yourself into situations that I have to pull you out of.”
Dr. Brandon was a trauma surgeon with a ridiculous god complex. The week before, he operated on a patient and sent them to the ICU, clearly still bleeding. He refused to answer the nurses’ calls, and I’d had to get administration involved. The surgeon was unhappy that he had to take the patient back to the OR to fix the bleeder he left, but that wasn’t my fault. He hadn’t finished the job to start with and dumped the patient into the ICU.
“I was doing my job with that Brandon patient. She’d have died if I hadn’t called for reinforcements.”
“That wasn’t your call,” Joan snapped at me. “He’s the doctor. You are a nurse.” She spat the word out as if she didn’t carry the same credentials. This was not the first time that staff on the unit needed our manager’s back-up and wouldn’t get it. We all knew. It was the reason our unit had such a high staff turnover. There was no reason to have any further discussion about this tonight.
“Listen, there are potatoes in my hair, gravy down my shirt. I’d like to go clean up, please.”
“You’ll need to write a statement about what happened for the report.”
“Will do,” I snapped, rising from the chair to show myself out.
I heard Joan huff behind me as I exited the office. Black shadows in the halls scattered as I moved toward the break room. Tears stung the back of my eyes, but I’d die before I cried on this unit.
“Hey Sadie, I was looking for you,” a voice called as I rounded the edge of the nurses’ station. “Ready to give me a report?”
I looked over to see Miranda Thomas, the night shift charge nurse, and a breath of relief flowed from my lungs. My shift was done.
Walking to the car after shift change was always a little eerie. The shimmers and shadows along the hospital corridors were not new, but the stress of the shift and shadow sightings from earlier had me a little on edge. I pushed into the parking deck hurriedly, trying to make it to my car as quickly as possible. Guilt ate at me, as I left without doing a last check with the other nurses, but I was certain they would understand my desperation to get home and wash away the residue of hospital potatoes and gravy.
My Volkswagen Jetta sat right where I’d left her in the far corner more than 12 hours ago. I clicked the key fob to unlock the doors as I approached. Before climbing in, I checked the back seat for stowaways, be they living or dead. Thankfully, no one was there.
I sat in the soft leather seat, locked the door, and took a moment for some slow, deep breaths. My nerves prickled throughout my body, and I knew I was too keyed up to drive right that second. I needed to close myself off psychically, otherwise, my frantic energy would be a strobe light. Random backseat pop-ins at seventy miles-per-hour on the freeway were not a good practice.
As I closed my eyes, the familiar face of my mother popped into my mind. I groaned. It would scandalize her to know I was sitting in a public parking lot, about to do a meditation where anyone could see. Greta Tanner had somehow escaped the spiritual gifts that ran in her bloodline. Despite its size, Nashville had been a relatively conservative southern town for her to grow up in. Being the ‘normal’ daughter of a gifted physical medium had been an endless source of embarrassment for her. She believed in her mother’s gifts and ability to communicate with the dead, but she was afraid of what others would say about them. To be fair, she had endured hearing her mother called names ranging from “a little eccentric” to “witch.” Class shunned her, and some even harassed her because of her mother’s reputation. She could never fully forgive her mother for the missed chances and strained relationships caused by fear and social prejudice.
Given such a strained history, my mother struggled with how to handle things when I started seeing dead people as a toddler. She permitted me to practice some with her mother, knowing I had to control my gifts, but cautioned me to keep them hidden from the public. “Normal people think seeing and talking with ghosts is weird,” she had said. “You cannot let people know. They’ll think you’re crazy or a liar.”
Honestly, I didn’t really want to broadcast my abilities either. I knew I’d be a target of jokes and con artists, but right now after the shift from hell, I needed a break. Being exhausted and off-kilter was a perfect recipe for unwanted visitors. I had to take a minute and shut this off, even though I knew it would only hold them at bay for a short while.
I scanned the space outside the car. No one was nearby, and larger SUVs on either side of my sedan sheltered me from being easily seen. Surely this would be fine for a two-minute meditation, right?
I closed my eyes and tried to clear my mind. Focusing on the void, I could feel myself lower into the depths of my consciousness. Meditation always made me feel a little vulnerable, opening my senses even more until I could get in there and shut it off. There was a fine line between “open” and “closed” for me, and I had never been especially good at managing it.
I had a ritual to control the functions of my mind. My grandmother helped me establish what mind space was “open” to seeing and sensing the deceased, and what it meant for me to “close” myself down. Her advice had been to choose something non-threatening to focus on; a mental image that I knew well and associated with safety and protection. It had been a simple decision.
A tall, red door manifested in my mind, with an ornate black latch and a wreath of greenery hung under two upper windows. It was the front door of my grandmother’s house. I always felt safe there. It was the only place I had ever been truly comfortable being myself. The only place I didn’t feel guilty for being a weirdo who could talk to the dead.
Fighting to stay focused, I took a few deep breaths, reinforcing my mental image. “I am closing the door for now, spirits. We’ll visit again at another time.” I heard my own words and pictured myself reaching for the doorknob. I used the knob to open my door and walked through its threshold, making sure that I shut the door behind me. Now, safely behind that mental door, I could slowly lift away from the meditation. It wasn’t foolproof. For whatever reason, my door could swing open without me doing it intentionally, and the spirits would show up again, but it usually took a few hours at least.