HALLOWEEN CHALLENGE HONORABLE MENTION
There’s a green. You’d know it if you saw it. It is a distinct green, the shade of green used in the tiles that cover the walls of old-fashioned operating rooms. A hue not as carefree as sea foam, not as mystical as sage. A sensible, non-offensive, easily washed green.
Megan Triola’s scientific mind guessed the color was a mixture of red, blue, and green. A 200, 200, 255 mix, or something like that, if you were using a standardized color palette.
Regardless, she liked the color; she found it peaceful. Which was the point. One of the color’s selling features, back in the day, was that the color would calm patients. The other claim was that the shade was complementary to red. Red like blood.
Megan passed by the old abandoned operating rooms, with their green tiles, on a nearly daily basis.
She did cancer research at the hospital, using fresh human tumor tissue. The surgeons now worked in new state-of-the art OR suites. The new ORs were gleaming white-walled chapels, equipped with monitors and computers. The surgeons would remove the tumors; the malignant tissue would be sent to pathology. The pathologists would check the margins, to let the surgeon know if they had cut past the place where the tumor lived. So, the surgeon would know if they had gotten all the tumor, including its microscopic pockets of tenancy in adjacent normal tissue.
Hopefully the surgeon could excise all the cancer. But, in some cases, the cancer had already spread too far. It was impossible to remove all of it without taking out too much normal tissue. Radiation, chemotherapy, or something else would be needed, to try and destroy the invasive cells as they squatted in necessary normal tissue and organs.
Pathology would separate a small sample of the cancerous tissue for the lab where Megan worked. The lab was toiling away to find another something that might help when the surgery was not enough. Megan would walk to pathology and pick up the specimen, the malignant sample enclosed in a sealed sterile plastic dish. She would walk it back to the lab.
There were two routes between her lab and pathology. One way was located on the third floor of the hospital, where it took her through clean, well-lit hallways lined with modern laboratories.
The other snaked through a lower floor, traversing a part of the hospital undergoing renovation; it took her straight through the old, now abandoned, operating room suite. Hardly anyone ever went down there anymore.
But then, when given the opportunity to choose, Megan always chose the path less traveled.
There were only six operating rooms in the narrow hallway. They were arranged three rooms on one side, three on the other, their doors opposing one another, so that if the surgeon wanted, he or she could simply cross the hall into another OR. Sometimes the preeminent surgeons did that, supervising multiple surgeries at the same time.
There was magic walking where famous surgeons had crisscrossed the hall, Megan thought. A lingering genius that saturated the air. There was history.
But the history was being excised. The old rooms, lined with those distinct green tiles and floored in dark terracotta, were being destroyed. The illuminating lights that had lit life and death on the operating table now dangled idly from the ceiling. The black foamy operating tables were barren and tilted at odd angles.
Most of the accoutrements of surgery were gone. There were a few stainless-steel trays, but all the glass-lined cabinets were empty.
The rooms were quiet. The hall was quiet. The entire area was entombed by large swinging double doors.
Her co-workers never took this route.
“It’s probably haunted down there,” one had stated. He didn’t even believe in an afterlife, but he believed the old ORs were haunted.
“It’s not haunted,” Megan assured him. “Deceased patients have no reason to stay there. And I’ve never heard of a surgeon haunting anyplace. Have you? Haunting is probably too inefficient for them. They practice closure. They probably move on instantly.”
“Why go through there, though? It’s creepy.”
“It’s quiet. Quiet and creepy are not the same thing,” she told him. “The place is quiet and historic. And soon it will be gone. Every time I go through there, they are doing more work. Cabinets are being removed; doors taken off their hinges. Half the lights are already gone. Incredible things happened there and soon, it will be replaced with wide-open office space, cubicles, stain-concealing carpet, a communal coffee maker, and a temperamental printer. There will be nothing special left.”
Megan now made it a point to walk through the abandoned area as often as she could, because she knew the days of the place were numbered.
“Whoa, little lady!” a voice called out.
Megan stopped, her hand nervously crinkling the blue powdered nitrile gloves in her lab coat pocket.
“What are you doing down here?” the voice asked.
The voice was deep, male. A man with a flashlight stepped out of one of the old operating rooms.
He was not a surgeon. He was a security guard. He had a hospital name tag, just like her. His name was Steve Gessner. He looked muscular enough to punch through the old walls.
“I’m Megan Triola,” she replied. “On my way to pathology. To pick up some tissue and slides.”
“You need to go through the third floor now,” he told her. “This area is no longer in use.”
“I know that,” she told him. “I just like the old operating rooms. I like the way they look; I like the way they smell.”
“It’s creepy down here. Nothing to see, nothing to smell.”
She sighed. There was no use arguing with someone she had just met.
“And it’s dangerous,” Steve stressed. “For one, the construction. There are tripping hazards, and the area isn’t exactly up to current building code. You could get hurt down here, and no one might find you for a while. Plus,” he added, looking at her very seriously. “There are security risks. Someone could grab you down here. Again, no one might find you for a while. We ask that no one go through here anymore.”
“I understand,” she said, recognizing the verbal warning. Megan knew he could report her, if he saw her go through the area again. That wouldn’t look good on her human resources file.
She hadn’t expected this to be her last trip through the abandoned operating room suite. It filled her with an odd sadness. If she had known, she would have been prepared to say good-bye.
“I don’t know why you care for these old rooms,” Steve added. “No one else does. Not even the surgeons – I haven’t seen any of them loitering down here, feeling all nostalgic.”
“The surgeons who trained here are probably all at million-dollar plus a year jobs now,” she replied. “They built impressive résumés in these rooms.”
She looked into one of the rooms, the green tile being chipped off the wall, the operating room table at an odd acute angle. The old overhead lamps were now dark and bereft of light. “A lot of people were probably saved here,” she guessed.
“And quite a few died, or found out they were going to die,” Steve replied. “Not that times are much better now. A lot of people are still dying. All my old favorite singers, TV stars, athletes. Friends, family. All the good ones seem to be dying. Often I find myself offering more condolences than congratulations.”
“Death never sleeps,” she agreed. “Sometimes I worry.”
“About what? You look pretty healthy.” He was walking, moving them along, trying not to use any terminology HR would disapprove of. Steve knew she could report him for the ‘little lady’ comment. That wouldn’t look good on his human resources file.
“About all the good ones seeming to be being called home to Heaven,” Megan continued. “What if God is calling all the good ones home? What does that mean for those of us left behind here on Earth? Should we be worried that we’re being left behind? Are we not good enough?”
“Now is not our time to move on,” Steve said. “That’s all that means. God’s been calling folks home for all the ages. He has quite a few more ages to go before the Last Days, Dr. Triola.”
“Miss Triola,” she corrected. “I’m still in school.”
“Well, Miss Triola, speaking of Last Days, this is the last day you walk through here, right? You could get raped, hurt, or lost, down here. Maybe breathe in some toxic substance that is being disturbed by the construction. No one wants to see that happen. From now on, you go to pathology through the third floor, just like everyone else. Agreed?”
She nodded, looking at the old rooms, smelling the lingering scents of heavy-duty cleaning supplies, old anesthetics, and something else. A sweet, humid, slightly intoxicating smell she could not identify. Something saturating the gray grout around the green tiles.
Maybe history had a smell. Maybe that was it.
Steve walked her out, watching Megan as she exited the abandoned OR suite, making sure she wouldn’t walk back through the old operating rooms on her return trip to the lab.
Megan walked past the old operating suite entrance, knowing she would not enter.
She just wanted to pass by, one last time,
The double doors to the area had been chained together and padlocked.
There was nothing to see, nothing to smell. If you didn’t know the rooms were ever there, you wouldn’t know.
A part of history had passed, and only Magen had bothered to witness it as it slipped away.
In the end, Megan had an odd thought; that she was perhaps the only ghost that ever haunted the abandoned rooms.
She was okay with that. The doors could deny her physical body entrance, but her mind and spirit could still slip past the padlock whenever she wanted.
And remember the scent of those green tiles.
Because that was what ghosts did, in this life or the next: they remembered.
Laura Campbell won the 2007 James B. Baker Award for short story for her science fiction tale, 416175. Over fifty of her short stories have appeared in Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 3, Under the Full Moon’s Light, Liquid Imagination, Gods & Services, A Celebration of Storytelling, The Martian Wave, Frost Zone Zine, and other publications. Her two novels, “Blue Team One” and “Five Houses,” and a collection of her first short stories (“No Lesser Angels, No Greater Devils”), are currently available online. Many of Laura’s more recent works are listed on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Laura-J.-Campbell/e/B07K6SZJJ9 When she is not writing, Laura can be found attending rock concerts, weight training, or running. She is encouraged in her writing by her husband, Patrick, and children, Alexander and Samantha.