The aeroplane plummeted. Dana, forced back in her seat by the g-force, couldn’t even scream. The noise of the TT-Swan’s twin jet engines had become a scream. Dana could see her father’s hand gripping the arm of his seat ahead of her, his knuckles white. She wished she could see his face.
The lights in the small passenger cabin flickered once. Then darkness.
In a café, a young man glanced up at the television above the counter. His coffee cooled on the table in front of him. Around him, the chatter of voices quietened. The other customers, like he, now watched the news report. A waitress reached up on tiptoes to turn up the volume.
A male reporter explained the images. A narrow streak of fire cut across a field on the screen, fragments of white-and-blue painted metal decorating a blast zone, broken trees at the edge of a copse showing where the small plane had entered the treeline, bouncing and already broken. There were fires showing in the woods as well.
The young man turned his attention back to his coffee. The initial shock of the images was fading, and conversation returned to its normal level. Every now and then, he glanced back up at the screen, listening to the report continue.
The news report concluded, moving on to discussion of the war in Ukraine.
A little later, the programme returned to the local breaking news and images of the broken up aircraft reappeared on the screen. This time, the footage was on ground level, where a female reporter picked her way gingerly over the ploughed field. The young man, wallet in hand to pay for his coffee at the counter, paused in the act, to watch.
“Where are the police?” the waitress wondered aloud. “How is it that news-cameras can get there before the police can?”
“Mmm.” He didn’t answer, agreeing instead with her tone.
The woman on the screen began to describe how cold she was, her words marked by visible vapour. Fire blazed in the wreckage not far away, but her breath was frost in the night. The young man’s face tightened as if a sudden thought had occurred.
“Here’s the money; sorry, I have to go quickly,” he explained in English-accented Polish, pushing the ten-zloty note towards her. He left the café without his change, pulling his rucksack on as he broke into a run.
She dreamed of crawling. Her hands gripped at sharp edges, pulling her forward against the pain of torn palms. She wriggled through the broken sections, crushed by their weight, the roar of firelight always just ahead or just behind.
The light grew, brighter than a torch, brighter than headlights. It was white, blue-tinged, and when Dana closed her eyes it burned through her lids.
A stabbing pain, fine as glass, stung at the inside of her elbow. The lights melted, the roaring of the fires replaced by low voices, then silence. Then darkness once again.
The sectional ceiling came into focus out of the blur. Florescent lighting hummed away in panels. Dana blinked at it, blearily wondering if she could turn them off with the closing of her eyelids. The bizarre thought discovered itself and she began to put the pieces together; she was sedated, quite heavily. Her body hurt in a distant way, but it was mostly numbed and floating.
Her mouth was dry. She licked over her gums and parted her lips as the hospital room came into greater clarity. A curtain was up on one side of her, but she could see a bed across the way. She was on a hospital ward, then. She turned her head, surprised that she could. The sight she dreaded did not appear; there were no flowers at her bedside. This small mercy allowed her to breathe out in relief, testing the tightness in her sides.
A doctor—or at least, a man in a white coat—stepped around the curtain. He registered her gaze and smiled, slowing his step and turning to approach her bedside.
“How are we feeling, yes?” His accent was unfamiliar to Dana, but she’d spent long enough in Edinburgh to place it as being Eastern European. The TT-Swan had been flying to Prague from Moscow.
“Is this the Czech Republic?”
“This is the Children’s Hospital, Krakow, in Poland. I am one of your doctors,” he paused, indicating his name badge and sounding out the syllables, “Lesh-ek Vie-der.” His name was spelled out on the badge, Leszek Wajda. “How are you feeling?” Leszek repeated.
“Sides feel tight,” Dana responded. “So, we crashed in Poland?”
“You broke two ribs, and bruised this one, here.” He indicated with a hovering finger. “Yes, Dana. This jet of yours smashed down, forty miles from Krakow. I know you have many questions, but I must ask you first, yes?”
“Ok.” Dana had just one question at the moment, but she was afraid to ask it.
“What is your full name, please?”
“Dana Jennifer Laurel.”
“Your birth date, please?”
“The seventh of the ninth, 2002,” Dana reeled off, the information presenting itself straight away through the mild fog of the pain medication.
“You are fourteen?” Leszek sounded mildly surprised. “My daughter is fourteen,” he added, conversationally, to cover his tone. “And what is your address of residence, please?”
“Eleven, Warrender Park Terrace, Edinburgh, EH9—”
“Ojej! Please, a little slower…” The doctor knocked his ballpoint pen against the clipboard that held her chart. Making a terse little hiss, then saying something under his breath in Polish, he fished a second pen out of a pocket and carried on, flashing an apologetic smile. Dana went back over the information. There was a kind of ticking in her head that she didn’t think was the clock on the wall; a conscious waiting, halfway between fearful anticipation and impatience.
When he asked her for the details of her next of kin, she knew that her father wasn’t waiting for her in some reception room in the hospital. The cold feeling knuckling at the inside of her stomach was just emotion, she tried to tell herself. Just a reasonable emotional reaction to recent trauma. But she was a genius, for heaven’s sake!
Keep it together.
Leszek was pulling up a chair and sitting down. Dana lay back on the limp pillow, her head full of images of flowers in translucent plastic wrap. Another hospital, another bed.
Leszek’s voice, his accent slightly American-tinted, as was so often the case with European speakers of English, was calm and quiet. She tried to focus on the words, but the ticking was louder than before.
“…very bad and at a high speed. I need y—”
“—stand that it is a miracle that you are so ver—”
“—to be alive at all.”
“So he’s dead.” Dana heard herself say it, to stop the ticking. Doctor Wajda stopped talking. He leant towards her, broad forehead wrinkled in concern.
“Dana, they have not found your father, not yet. But—”
“Not…? How can they not have—he was on the plane, he was in front of me.” Dana expected the doctor to stop her, but he waited calmly and she found that she had run out of words. “He was just there…” she tailed off, voice sounding very small. She wanted to curl up, but her body was too numbed, too stiff in the middle.
“They are still looking, Dana, but I must tell you, you must manage expectations, understand? For the jet smash is spread over some large area, a long furrow, fields and woods. Many pieces.” His expression was pained. A cool part of Dana’s mind admired his professional restraint. The rest of her fought the urge to scream.
He is probably dead. The ‘probably’ was a nasty word, turning over and over in the middle of the thought. In a terrible way, it was certainty she craved. But the word hung there, long after Dr Wajda had left her bedside. She slipped in and out of sleep, in the woolly cocoon of her pain medication, probably sitting just behind her eyelids as the ward quietened, footfall ceasing. The lights went out, leaving the ward in cool semi-darkness, lit only by the yellow light that shone through the glass panels in the double doors at the end of the room.
Dana went to sleep with probably still ticking in the corner of her mind, like an unexploded bomb.
The following day—according to the clock on the wall—Dana was joined by Dr Wajda and several other men and women, all wearing white coats, breast pockets stitched with the hospital’s logo. Dana was propped up in bed, an anaemic breakfast arranged on a folding table suspended over her bandaged midriff.
“Hello, Dana,” Dr Wajda said. “Please, allow me to introduce some of my colleagues.” He reeled off several names, which Dana immediately forgot, temporarily unable to process the Polish syllables. A woman, who wore her hospital coat open over a stylish trouser suit and blouse, turned and said something to Leszek. He nodded, expression suddenly closed.
“We are going to move you to your own room, and we would like all to look after you, where before I was your doctor only, yes?”
“You want to study me,” Dana said, her voice sounding flat in her own ears.
“You’re very clever,” Dr Wajda said, sounding a little embarrassed, his eyes crinkling a little above a strained smile. “Your case is…unique. Medically you are very mysterious.”
“Have you contacted my aunt?” Dana wondered again at the dead tone of her voice. She sounded less emotional than Stephen Hawking.
“That is being done,” Wajda said, glancing away. “There are technicalities but admin will look after this.”
Dana couldn’t muster the energy to pursue the matter.
A porter helped her into a wheelchair and wheeled her down a bland corridor and into a lift, chattering cheerfully to her in Polish. In the lift, on the way to the fourth floor, she commented, “I’m Scottish, pal. Don’t speak any Polish.” He just smiled at her. “Well, you’ve got a better bedside manner than most of the doctors,” she added. He nodded encouragingly, without any sign of having understood.
The private room was more expensively decorated than the ward, with curtains rather than blinds. It had a tiny en-suite toilet, which would be an improvement on a bedpan. The bedside table was still, happily, free of flowers. There were two windows, letting in sunlight that left square patterns stretched across the dark blue carpet. Dana watched dust motes dance in the air, wondering how long it would take for her pain to return.
When it did come, it was more discomfort than agony. Little jags of pain occurred when she tried to turn onto her side, but in general the overriding sensation was of a restrictive tension. Later, as the light shifted and rose to pattern the walls with a ruddier light, it became a low and nearly constant burning sensation that moved in gentle waves with her breathing.
Why am I alive? Not self-pity but a practical question. I can think this through. It wasn’t as if she had anything else to do.
Her dad’s private jet. Herself, her dad, the pilot. Dr Wajda hadn’t mentioned the pilot, which she was sure he would have done had he survived. The crash had been dramatic. Not a crash-landing; she remembered the plummeting rush, and the moment before, when the nose of the plane had dipped to follow the course of gravity. So the aircraft had broken up catastrophically, meaning that her father’s body hadn’t even been found.
So how is it that I am alive?
Frustratingly, there was no way to take the thought any further. She lacked the information she needed to examine her survival. Still, she turned the matter over in her mind as the sunlight dimmed. After an hour, the florescent lights came on, washing out the colours that had deepened with the sunset. Dana looked at the call button attached to the bed, wondering if she should ask for more pain medication. She wasn’t on an intravenous system.
Another hour or so passed. Dana checked the clock. It was just after nine. She could hear footsteps in the corridor outside her room, less frequent now. No squeaky-wheeled trolley-beds, no rumbling male voices. It was hard to ignore the pain without distraction.
Later still, the lights were still on and the pain still present, now joined by another need. With some effort, Dana climbed out of her bed and made her way across the room to the toilet. Sitting to pee was far harder than walking had been. She made an effort to breathe normally, calmly acknowledging the pain. It was bearable.
Dana was half way back to her bed when the lights went out. She froze in place, caught by surprise. A timer? Is there a “lights-out” time here?
There are no lights in the corridor either.
Dana could just see her bed, lit by ambient lighting from the windows. She walked to the nearest window, careful with every step. Krakow was beyond the square panes of glass. Dana had never seen Krakow and was dryly amused to find that she couldn’t really see it now. Most of the nearby buildings were black shapes against the backdrop of the more distant city. There were streetlights on, elsewhere, but not nearby.
Great. Power cut.
Dana turned and looked at the double doors to her room. The vertical pane of safety glass was blank. No light showed from the long corridor beyond.
No. Hospitals have backup generators. Always.
Dana felt something other than pain, other than hollow, suspended grief. It was a chill that crept up her spine, focusing her attention on the black pane of glass in the door. Different from the sudden realisation of fear that she had felt as the plane fell, different from the slow dread she had felt throughout her mother’s lost battle with cancer. It was an older fear, one that hadn’t bothered her since she was very small.
Suddenly Dana was afraid of the dark.
It’s the trauma, it’s just the trauma, it’s just the trauma. Dana forced herself to breathe calmly. Her hospital gown felt horribly insubstantial, sticking to the sweat that had broken out on her back. Stop being a silly girl, you’re fourteen. You’ve got eight GCSEs, an International Baccalaureate Diploma and you know how to carry out a basic service on your dad’s Toyota.
She began to walk toward the doors. The lights would surely come on soon. It was best to be rational and face the object of her fear. These thoughts made sense on a rational level, but did nothing to soften the sharpness of her dread. Still, she walked across the mile of carpet to the door, unblinking, hands out as if for balance.
There were emergency lights on in the corridor, above doors and the elevator at the far end of the hallway. Their weak green light made most of the length of the hallway visible, if only just, an irradiated gloom. It was better than pitch darkness. Wasn’t it?
Why hasn’t the auxiliary power come on?
Dana reached for the door, ready to open it and call out for a nurse, or a porter, or anyone. Just at that moment, a night porter stepped into view at the far end of the corridor. He shone a torch around him, moving in a strange stop and start fashion.
He’s looking for something. Looking for what?
He turned and began to walk down the corridor towards Dana’s room. He stopped at a set of light switches, flicking the switches and looking up at the lights. When they didn’t come on, he reached for his radio and began to talk into it, glancing up at the dark florescents. As he did so, two others turned the corner past the elevator. Dana could barely make them out at first. They walked without much urgency, and with a peculiarly deliberate step. The night porter must have heard the footsteps, because he turned, shone his torch. He greeted them with a word, his torch beam swinging casually up to shine on them.
Their faces were blank, featureless, shapeless. The impossible sight hit Dana like an icy punch to her gut. She backed away from the door and felt a cold draught on her back. Suffocating a scream, Dana spun on the spot, looking wildly around her dark room. Nothing jumped out at her. There was no hideous shape looming out of the shadows. One of the windows was slightly open. The rational side of Dana’s mind immediately told her that the window must have been ajar and that she hadn’t noticed.
Everything else in Dana told her that there was something in the room.
She looked everywhere. No movement, no sounds. Slowly, she turned and peered back through the safety glass.
The night warden was dropping slowly to the floor, half-supported by the other two figures. Their blank faces looked down at him. He shook. Their hands were hidden from Dana, blocked by the night warden’s body, until they let him fall. Then she saw them, long and deformed, no, deforming, fingers stretched together, tapering. The way the flesh ran, fluid and yet solid at the same time, it was like…wax. Like living wax.
Together, they looked up at her door.
Not real. Not real. This is a medication dream.
I’m not on any medication.
Then I’m hallucinating.
Another figure appeared down the corridor but this one flickered into view, like a shadow cast by a faulty light. This one was hooded, with a satchel bag slung over its shoulder. Just as suddenly, it flickered out of existence.
I am definitely hallucinating.
The two were coming to the door. Dana backed away, backed into something solid. She screamed, jumping aside. Her ribs burned, but she avoided the long hands, the stretched arms. Another face without eyes, with its molten wax pallor, was feet from her. The figure repositioned, an oddly exacting motion. Dana could feel how wide her eyes were, feel the electric thrills running across her skin, the ice turning over in her stomach.
“You’re not real,” she told the creature, stubbornly. For a moment, she almost believed it. Then its hands lifted towards her, melting and stretching, and her body overrode her mind. This was real, it was happening, she was going to die…
Then in an instant, the vanishing figure reappeared behind the wax man. His hood fell back as he looked up, revealing a young face. He made a whipping motion with his right hand, extending a telescoping baton. The wax man turned, but too slowly. The baton raised and fell, a smashing blow that would have cracked a skull. It thudded flatly instead, knocking the creature off balance.
“Shit,” the young man swore, lifting the baton again. “Fire!” Behind Dana, the other two wax men burst through the door. Dana half turned towards them and missed what happened next. A light filled the room and when Dana turned back, something that resembled a small bird made of flame sailed past her and began to attack one of the wax men.
The young man was visible in the fire bird’s flickering light. Dana caught a glimpse of a strong, angular face, brown skin, dark eyes and straight black hair. He held the baton above his head two-handed. A spark leapt from his fist and immediately traced the baton with orange flame. He brought it down again and this time the wax man in front of him folded instantly.
Dana hyperventilated dangerously. Her ribs sent dizzying pain through her body. Above her, the flame bird kept the other two wax men at bay, wings battering the air in perfect mimicry of the real thing. The bird’s master stepped over the fallen wax figure, which was beginning to sink inwards on itself, and swept his baton in a horizontal glancing blow. Both remaining creatures collapsed. The bird instantly returned to hover above the young man’s head. He reached down, offering her a hand.
“You ever see the original Terminator film?”
Dana stared at him.
“Well, I won’t say what I was going to say then. Come on, up you get.” His hand took hers. It was warm. Non-hallucinated. “This might hurt, sorry,” he added, pulling her upright and into a full embrace. She had time to observe that his was an English accent, not Polish, before he squeezed tight, forcing agony to bounce around inside her ribcage.
There was a comforting familiarity to unconsciousness.