Family and friends are gathering in the common area. It’s a large room that could hold probably 100-150 people. They’re milling about, talking and some even networking. Although many people are here because of illnesses, spirits are high here on Med Ave. I take a seat on a sofa in what would normally be the waiting area. The woman next to me is cheerful and kind. We discuss the ongoing party. The crowd is to our right, in a section walled off from ours. The doorway is facing our backs and isn’t even a doorway, just one of those wide openings you’d see in any normal hospital.
She comments on the rowdiness of the crowd, but soon we are making our own jokes and getting louder ourselves. My sister comes in through the double doors in front of us. There are two sets – one on the left and one on the right. They flank the staircase that greets you as soon as you enter. My sister passes the stairs when she sees me and comes into the waiting room. We exchange greetings and although we are close, neither of us moves to hug the other.
We continue our cheerful banter, the woman and me. My sister joins in. We are discussing cartwheels when I decide to get up and try one. That and a handstand. As I’m standing in the middle of the waiting room, Alejandro, the cook from the restaurant on the second floor passes me on his way in. He kisses my forehead and asks me how I’m doing. He’s always been a sweet man and has a thick Spanish accent. Everything about him is Spanish and he embraces his home country with pride. I see him almost everyday I am well enough to be up and about.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t she just say she was doing cartwheels and handstands? I was really just standing in the center of the room discussing how to do them, but wishing with everything I had that I could do them. Alejandro smiles gently and heads to the hall opposite the party room. There he’ll take escalators up to his restaurant.
This hospital is not like any I’ve ever seen. I’ve never heard of a hospital letting their patients invite as many people as they want to a holiday party. I’ve also never seen one with a layout like the one on Med Ave. The ground floor is very much like a normal hospital. Linoleum floors and curtainless windows allow sound to travel and echo. The seats are comfortable but vinyl for easy cleanup.
The walls the front doors are built into, the ones facing the street, are all glass panes, two stories tall, looking outside. The walls opposite them are masks for the offices beyond. There are no patient rooms on the ground floor, this is all administration. The ceilings in front of the glass panes are high, probably a good 60 feet up. Even though the offices’ ceilings are probably at most 10 feet high. When you enter from either side of the waiting room you’re greeted with a massive staircase that goes straight up to the third floor, completely skipping the second. The third and second floors have no access to each other.
As I watch Alejandro leave I hear a ruckus coming from the party room. Martha, I’ve discover is the name of the woman I sat next to, turns her head asking the question we’re all wondering. “What are they up to now?” At first it just sounds like people shuffling around, maybe shoving against each other. Then there is the distinct sound of angry voices followed by a single scream muffled by the other voices.
Maria stumbles out of the crowd and falls on the floor against the wall clutching her stomach. Her white shirt is dark red around her hand. Marcus pushes through the crowd and enters the waiting room, his posse not far behind. “I told you, didn’t I?” He screams at her. She struggles to stand. I see the small knife still clutched in his hand. Both hands are curled into fists. “Don’t do it again.” He says shoving her against the wall when she finally gains her feet.
Maria and I met here on Med Ave. She is a strong, but soft hearted woman. Barely a woman really, only 20 years old. Marcus is her boyfriend and the reason she is here in the first place. She had told him she never wanted to see him again so I’m not even sure why he’s at the party. Every eye is on them. I look around and see people are more interested in seeing what happens next than taking any steps to prevent it. I may have only known her a month or so, but I care deeply for Maria. She had seen a lot and she didn’t deserve this. He had stabbed her for Pete’s sake and no one was doing a thing about it.
She spit in his face. He raised his hand, but my fist collided with his jaw before he could strike. He fell into his friends and onto the floor. I grabbed Maria and ran. I heard his yell behind us, but I pushed Maria forward toward the escalators. They were at least 100 feet away. She was slow, but I pushed her forward. I looked behind us. Marcus and his friends were in pursuit. My heart was pounding. I knew for sure if he caught us, it would be over. I would be dead. It hurts to breathe. It’s hard to breathe. My chest is so tight.
“Go! Go! Go!” I frantically tell Maria. We make it to the escalators and run up them at full speed. Our feet land on the padded, velvet carpet and I see what we need. Remember how I said the hospital was unlike any I’d ever seen. Well this hospital had a second floor that was basically a mini mall. Over the escalators the ceiling was open and continued to the third floor. Above the waiting room and to my left is Alejandro’s restaurant. Lining the wall to my right, are small shops. Clothing shops, toy shops, sweets shops, everything. We ran toward Alejandro. We entered his restaurant and were immediately in the kitchen. We hid beneath the stainless steel trays and cooking stations. It was dark in there.
We lay still, trying to quiet our ragged breathing. It was hard for Maria who was still bleeding and who had probably left drops of blood leading right to our hiding spot. Marcus didn’t pay attention to the floor though. He went straight to Alejandro. “Where are they?” His voice was rough with irritation as he grabbed the collar of Alejandro’s cooking jacket. Alejandro played dumb. Such a good guy to his core. Marcus’s goons started trashing the place. They threw pots and pans. They cleared the counters with wide sweeps of their arms. Rags were flying everywhere. One landed on the stove burner that was still lit with flame. The rag must have been covered in grease because it caught quickly and spread. Alejandro was trying to pull away from Marcus to help his dying kitchen.
Here I am, helpless under a cooking station. I look at Maria and there are flames in her eyes. They aren’t from the fire of the kitchen, but from years of dealing with Marcus’s shit. One of cooks comes in and immediately tends the fire, fruitlessly trying to put it out. Marcus has had enough. He shoves Alejandro hard against the wall. One of his friends swings at the cook with a cleaver and blood splatters across the steel cabinet doors. She falls next to us with a thud. I hear Alejandro’s agonized yell as he watches the massacre of his kitchen unfold.
The next few moments are a blur. I don’t remember all the details. I seem to have blacked out or maybe I just didn’t want to see and closed my eyes. I remember begging Maria to “Wait. Don’t go out there. Come back.” And then nothing until there was only the sound of flames, the heat, and the wet tears running down my face mixing with the blood of… Who? Someone other than me anyway. I’m crying for Alejandro. I’m crying for Maria. I crawl out of my hiding place and find Maria, covered in blood, standing over what’s left of Marcus. Alejandro is also covered in the dark red liquid. He’s slumped on the floor holding his innocent cook in his arms, a large chopping knife next to his leg.
Although the threat is gone, my heart is still pounding and my chest is still tight. Maria is pale and her eyes seem distant. She starts to sway and then her legs buckle. I catch her before she falls to the floor and then I am like Alejandro. I’m clutching my friend in my arms and I weep. I had never seen such a thing in all my life. The flames flickered orange on the wet droplets that covered most surfaces. They seemed to dance everywhere. You couldn’t escape their mocking. I scoot next to Alejandro, dragging Maria’s body with me. I lean my head on his shoulder and he leans his head on mine.
“I’m sorry.” I whisper. It needs no response and he gives none. I don’t know if the nightmare on Med Ave is over, I just know we aren’t going anywhere right now.