from The Rest of Your Unnatural Life, by Heather Fuller
The ear on the sidewalk outside the emergency room was unequivocally human. Its helix curved elegantly into a pert lobe bearing the dimple of a retracted piercing. The triangular fossa still framed the shadows of the ear’s superior contours. Even the tragus remained intact, implying a deep and angled cut, likely executed from the back of the head. Did the ear’s former owner feel it coming, Corinne wondered as she stood above the severed cartilage. Even more pressing, was there someone inside the ER searching for an ear?
It’s not that it mattered. Corinne, a nurse in the hospital attached to the ER, recognized the signs of tissue death, the ash-dusted fountain pen indigo tinting rain-pelted candle wax. Not even the rock star plastics team could reunite this ear with its rightful head. Corinne stalled on the sidewalk. She had five minutes to report to work on the top floor of the inpatient tower adjacent to the ER. Should she leave the ear on the sidewalk? Should she report it to the ER, as if that site of so much misery was some macabre lost-and-found?
In the face of this decision, Corinne choked. She kicked the ear with the bottom of her clog into the rock garden beside the ER’s turnstile doors.
Corinne reached the timeclock with eight seconds to spare. She regretted cutting it so close. It afforded her no time before her shift to visit the tower stairwell, which she looked forward to visiting as frequently as her shift on the locked bio-isolation unit would allow.
Corinne began visiting the stairwell several months ago, during the same week the management abruptly announced the conversion of her ward to the Unified Center for Emerging Infectious Disease. On breaks, she peeled off her impermeable gown, gloves, shield, and pressurized helmet, scrubbed in the sink with the 20-second timer overhead, then ran laps up and down the nine flights of stairs in the tower stairwell.
Several weeks into bio-isolation, one of Corinne’s patients died from an infectious pathogen no one quite understood. She took her break in the stairwell just as she had on prior nights. But on this particular night as she sprinted from the landing on the eighth floor to the seventh-story stairs, a voice stopped her mid-step: Help me. Corinne froze and listened. Three minutes passed on her nurse’s field watch. The voice did not repeat its entreaty. Corinne turned and walked back to the ninth floor. On the way, she found no one in need of help.
The following night, Corinne resumed her stairwell run. Help me, again, halted her between the eighth and seventh floors. Corinne assessed that a trained and perceptive nurse might detect a hint of breathlessness, a trace of air hunger, a plaintiveness that demanded a split-second choice: Is this an urgency, or emergency? Her forays into the stairwell continued in this manner the next night, and the nights after that.
Three months of bio-isolation passed, and it dawned on Corinne that the voice in the stairwell might want what all of her patients wanted – a bit of comfort. She took her falafel and nectarine into the stairwell and sat on the eighth-floor landing. She propped her smartphone against the step and tapped play. “Dark Valley” by the Holidays flooded the stairwell. As the music pressed on, Corinne heard no Help me’s interspersed among the phrases. Instead, she thought she felt the landing beneath her shake slightly and a chill cloak her in the stairwell’s close air. Every night after that, she repeated the “Dark Valley” concert and felt the shaking and the chill deep inside her core.
On the night Corinne found the ear outside the ER, she followed the same routine. She took her food to the stairwell then sat down to play “Dark Valley.” This night, however, no Help me implored her. The shaking and chill ceased as well.
The following morning, Corinne clocked out and slipped a plastic biohazard bag into her backpack. She bypassed the stairwell, took the elevator to the ground floor then detoured to the ER. The ear was still lying in the rock garden where she had kicked it. She kneeled down and looked around to make sure no one was watching. She used a rock to flip the ear into the biohazard bag, sealed the bag carefully, then folded it over into a neat package. She tucked it into her jacket pocket and started walking home.