“At midnight, right?”
Ellen set her coffee down and looked at the new, young nurse standing before her. Alexa was fresh out of school, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and she still had a lot to learn.
“No, no. Death walks our halls around three in the morning.” The old woman nodded slowly. “This being your first night shift, you’ll be paired up with me, over in pediatric.”
Alexa blushed slightly and then nodded.
“Most of the patients will be asleep, right?”
“Usually. And hopefully, we have a quiet night.”
If Alexa wondered why Ellen kept a deck of cards in her pocket and a worn, well-loved old field hockey stick tucked in behind the desk of the nurse’s station for her ward, she didn’t say a thing.
For a few hours, they walked the halls quietly. Most of their patients were asleep, though they did have to wake a few for night time doses. Everything was carefully scheduled and at 10 to 3 in the morning, Ellen swung them around to check in at the station. Alexa was surprised to see other nurses checking in, even some from other parts of the hospital. Most of them carried something, small games tucked in pockets and many had baseball bats held casually.
They all turned those no-nonsense gazes on the redoubtable old woman and she began to arrange them like a general positioning her troops.
“And remember, radios on and be ready to move. We’ve got a great record, let’s keep that way.”
As Alexa and Ellen walked towards their post in the NICU, Alexa kept glancing uncertainly at the battered old field hockey stick Ellen bore. Finally, she broke the silence, her voice just above a whisper.
“You meant it literally, didn’t you? Not just that it’s a bad time, but-”
Ellen cut her off with a shushing motion. Everywhere in the hospital, clocks changed over to 3 am and almost immediately their radio squawked to life.
“Motion in 240A. Headed west.”
“This is 230A, we copy.”
Alexa was shaking as Ellen pressed the radio into her hands.
“Just keep listening. We’re tracking him for now.”
“220A, we have a sighting. Moving towards the hall.”
The temperature in the whole building seemed to have dropped about 10 degrees. Every time another station checked in, Alexa felt colder and colder.
“This is desk. We have a scythe. I say again, we have a scythe. This is a bats, not balls, situation.”
Ellen swung her stick down, holding it in a comfortable two-handed grip as she stood in the doorway.
“This is hallway 2A, he’s moving your way, Ellen.”
Ellen nodded once.
“Tell them we copy.”
Alexa held the button down with fingers that shook. She could see a shadow massing at the other end of the hallway and she was suddenly all too aware of the hum of the life-sustaining equipment in the room behind her.
The dark robed figure that stalked the halls stood just five feet before them. His hood was drawn up, but Alexa felt eyes shift over her and then away. Slowly, like an ancient mechanism taking life once more, the figure raised one arm. The skeletal hand that came from within the billowing sleeve pointed to Ellen and then gestured, beckoning. Then he did something neither of them had expected: he reached up with both hands and lowered his hood. The face beneath was gaunt, but by no means skeletal, and he smiled sadly.
“My old adversary,” he said in a low, tender voice. “I am sorry to see our sparring come to an end, and I know this isn’t quite the usual. But I think we can bend the rules for old friends.”
Ellen’s face went dead white for a moment, then she nodded slowly.
“I thought I was getting more tired than usual…” A wry smile crossed her face. “I trained them all well. Don’t think they’ll stop just because I’m gone.”
She turned and pressed the old field hockey stick into Alexa’s hands.
“You’ll do fine, youngster. Never you worry about that. And radio the girls when I’m gone.”
Taking just a few steps forward, Ellen embraced her old opponent and he returned her hug fiercely. As the two figures, Death and the nurse who had defied him so many times, walked out into eternity, Alexa raised the radio once more.
“He’s gone.” The shakes were gone now and she held the old field hockey stick with a reverential care. “Ellen went with him.”