PRELUDE TO AN ENDLESS WINTER by Olympe Scherer
Fall was closing in so quickly now. It reminded Quentin of the time he’d visited his relatives for more than an evening, only to witness his own father slip into his sixties. His dad’s tight, proud features had melted into the ones of every other man, and the rich, black color of his hair had pitifully discolored in a matter of days. Fall was closing in like a worsening predicament, first with cinnamon-scented colors, then with a cold, sharp breeze. Quentin barely wanted to leave the building anymore. His real desire, at that present moment, would have been to begin an untimely hibernation, at least until the winter passed. Then, maybe he’d consider pulling himself together.
But why had his father reacted that way? Surely he would understand, if he’d been in his position. Quentin pulled a cigarette from his mouth and exhaled the smoke upward, like an old train engine.
And why had he ruined the holiday for everyone? Couldn’t his father keep his act together long enough for him to leave? Quentin stubbed out the cigarette and stared at the orange trees accusingly. He felt neither the warmth nor the beauty of this season that everyone but him seemed to enjoy. Autumn was a joke. It was like trying to ease difficult news into a child’s brain: at the same time too gentle, too meticulous, and too tortuously thought-out. Autumn was a phase; a winding bright-orange announcement that summer was over, and would never return.
“Five minutes,” the nurse informed him, poking her head into his office. Before fully shutting the door, she added: “Would you like some coffee?”
Quentin shook his head, his eyes fixed on the fading trees. He reached once more for the pack of cigarettes on his desk. The nurse pursed her lips and closed the door as he lit one.
She was bitten by the man’s distant manners. Would it kill him to answer her politely? She traveled down the hallway in long strides, taking in the pleasant whooshing made by her burgundy scrubs. She looked at the clock near the end of the corridor: 5:30 am. The hallway ended in a bay window. She came here in between emergencies, to keep an eye on the drive-through.
Catherine had had the job for nearly three weeks. As one could expect, this is not enough time to get accustomed to the incessant red and blue strobe lights of ambulances. A naturally calm person, Catherine had not expected to find those same lights in her coffee, in her mirror, or even on the skin of her eyelids. The young woman looked fresh out of nursing school. Like a green blossom in a dim apartment, she had begun to wither quietly like the rest, in the shadow of the hospital’s halls, from the moment she arrived.
Her neglected nails and heavy eyes revealed that Catherine hadn’t called home, or slept, in three full days. She bore a bruise on her right shoulder that was only beginning to heal; this one she had acquired while disabling the smoke detector in her boss’ office four days earlier. As Catherine was getting down from the rickety stepladder, she fell and hurt her shoulder.
This is what she’d told her colleagues, word for word, each time they’d ask.
A new ambulance had just pulled into the driveway. She was weary, and for the first time in her life, Catherine dared ask herself:
“What if it was him?”
A mix of hope and despair overwhelmed her in an instant, and just as fast as it had come, it was gone.
Catherine observed the incoming patient. The doors of the ambulance had just been thrown open; the emergency response staff proceeded to extract the trolley from the jaws of the van, hurriedly folding out its retractable legs.
Her husband wasn’t in the trolley. Instead, a child was strapped into the device; it was all the nurse could do not to blame him for her misery.
Everything was closing in quickly at that point. The internal damage was done, and the little boy had started coughing blood against the oxygen mask. Frantic staff members pushed the trolley into the building and through the halls.
In a last effort to save the little boy, nurses in burgundy fabric plugged him into half a dozen machines.
Almost no one was in at five in the morning. Catherine was swiftly elected to speak to the only available surgeon, who happened to be her impolite superior, Quentin.
She begrudgingly made her way to his office. Catherine imagined herself dragging the surgeon to the little boy’s deathbed, where she now had a grudge against a boy she did not know, for not being someone he would never be. Suddenly, a siren started wailing, and water begun to spurt from the ceiling.
“The smoke detector!” Catherine thought violently, and the notion was so sudden and potent that she fell to the side, and began to sob. What now? What would they think? The smoke detector had been disabled, hadn’t it? Yes, that’s it. Except it hadn’t. The nurse was unable to get up: Catherine’s own life had just brutally closed in on her. Nothing could matter anymore.
“What in the name of God is going on?” Quentin shouted, having just exited his office, a damp cigarette dangling from his left hand.
There was no one to answer him. Quentin shifted his gaze downward and finally noticed the distressed nurse. Catherine was up against the wall, hugging her knees and crying.
“Are you okay?” Quentin probed, kneeling next to the nurse. She barely nodded, and raised a shaking finger toward the other end of the hallway, where the boy was dying.
“Save him,” Catherine croaked. Without further consideration, the surgeon got up and ran down the corridor, his burgundy uniform completely drenched. Behind a curtain of her own damp hair, Catherine watched him leave, unable to do anything but sway back and forth.
The room in which the little boy was soon to expire consisted of a simple hospital bed, two dark blue chairs and a window whose view was compromised by a giant orange willow. Quentin had petitioned to have it removed a month prior, claiming that it obstructed the patients’ natural light source. His request was denied and from then on Quentin had made a show of avoiding that specific room. The fact was, no one took him seriously when he declared the color orange gave him headaches.
While the surgeon ran down the hallway, something unexpected happened. Quentin felt a sudden and sharp pain in his lungs, as if someone had just struck him in the chest. He began to wheeze heavily, struggling for air. Quentin had to stay calm, just, stay calm.
Maybe his father was right. Maybe Quentin was being irrational. Lung cancer was nothing to be reckoned with. Besides, Quentin’s medical insurance covered everything. Maybe he was being irrational.
The sprinkler system stopped, giving the surgeon an opportunity to look up.
Not every life is worth the same price. But Fall would eventually reap them all, like a grand prelude to an endless Winter. The music would deafen Quentin sufficiently so he wouldn’t have to suffer, and he’d convinced himself of that. Quentin had this absurd conception of his own death. Fall was closing in like a heavy red curtain; he was to die onstage, pelted with roses.
Quentin hugged his chest and tensed his muscles. Two months had passed in between the moment he learned the news and the moment Quentin delivered it to his own parents. Then, two more weeks before he informed them of his decision.
“I want to die free,” Quentin had announced to them; trapped in his grandiose idea of Death, he’d tried his best to sound heroic. But deep inside he knew how cliché, how deeply fake his approach to the situation was. Quentin’s mother had not stopped crying, and Quentin’s father had grown old. There is so much misery in this world. Why couldn’t they understand?
The surgeon continued to clasp his torso, and started to crawl forward, toward the boy’s room, where the real sounds of Death could be heard.
Beep. Clear! Thump.
Quentin was four feet from the room now. From there, he caught a glimpse of the hospital cot, surrounded by a flurry of burgundy.
Whee. Static. Clear! Thump.
The surgeon had now reached the threshold, still edging forward on all fours. Drawing a colossal effort, Quentin forced himself on his knees, and then, slowly, painfully, to his feet. Quentin clasped the doorway with both his hands, and obliged himself to look up.
Whimper. Static. Clear! Thump.
I want to die free.
Whimper. Elongated beep.
The orange willow outside gently stirred, letting small rays of sunrise shimmer up and down through its fiery leaves.
Clear! Thump. Silence. Clear! Thump. Silence.
The surge of burgundy ceased to rustle, like confetti in a halted snow-globe.
The surgeon shifted his eyes upward from the bloody cot. There stood a slender, gracious figure, with eyes the color of compassion. Quentin thoughtfully observed the stranger; the surgeon was comforted by the fact that everything had come to a full stop. None of the burgundy staff had noticed Quentin at the door yet.
The elegant stranger gladly returned Quentin’s gaze, before shifting toward the window. There, the willow’s leaves shone so bright they seemed ablaze. Quentin also began to examine the tree, and found himself unexpectedly pleased with its bright orange tint. When he moved his eyes back to the boy’s cot, the stranger was gone.
Catherine had stopped crying and now looked beyond the great bay windows at the end of the hall. Stoic, she imagined herself writing a resignation letter the same day. She saw herself taking the bus home, where looking outside the vehicle’s windows meant being visually assailed by a flurry of orange. Catherine could almost feel her icy keys as she plugged them into her apartment door, opened it forcefully, and announced to her private emptiness:
Fall had closed in completely now, encasing Quentin in an orange-lit box. Leaves that had once been green suddenly relinquished their youth, surprising themselves with their own peaceful compliance.
Everything and everyone was ready for Winter.
Olympe Scherer is fifteen and attends a French school in New York City. “My English teacher recommended this magazine and I'd love to be part of it!” We’re glad you’re here, Olympe.