"Scattered incidents of looting and vandalism south of downtown, I mean, it's certainly going to be a pain making your way home here John, the roads are jammed to capacity. I gotta say, I'm feeling pretty lucky to be up in a chopper right now."
-KNX News Radio, Los Angeles; September 10th, 2008; 11:09 AM PST.
By the time Nick makes it the six miles to St. Joseph's, his poor tummy is itching terribly. There's a line of cars choking the hospital driveway. He swerves in and out of there, changing his mind, turns down a leafy, shaded sidestreet of single-story homes, no parking of course, swings into the first empty driveway he sees and just leaves the volvo there. Let 'em tow it if they have to; this is life and death. He runs up to the entrance of the hospital, which is swarmed with people demanding smallpox inoculations. He can't get through the press of the crowd. There are two guards in black with charcoal caps and automatic rifles blocking the entrance to the hospital itself. A line of ambulances are waiting on the emergency ramp and every few seconds it seems the crowd parts and EMTs come rolling a patient out on a gurney and into a waiting ambulance. They're emptying out the hospital in preparation for the contagious victims.
Nick presses himself one or two-deep into the crowd but keeps getting repulsed outward. So then he just starts yelling, "I have it! I have it!"
At first only a couple people turn around; they don't realize what he's saying. "I have smallpox!" he screams at the top of his lungs.
The effect is like dropping a water balloon on an anthill. Instant evacuation. Nick glides through the turmoil like Moses through the Red Sea. When he gets to the door, even the guards squirm away to let him in.
Glen and Sergio, the two FEMA guards with the AK-47s who are currently guarding the doors of St. Joseph's Hospital in the Valley, were deployed last night from Riverside with a vague explanation of certain vague intelligence threats. Now they've both just heard it on the news: Tom Ridge has said there's a smallpox outbreak. He's said it's highly contagious. And no one's allowed to get shots yet, unless they're already sick. The shots are being saved until FEMA can determine who really needs them. This chubby guy with the cleft chin who just came surfing through the crowd is the first who's actually presented himself as ill. He looks fine, but neither Glen nor Sergio is a doctor, and they sure as hell don't want to examine him and find out. So they glance at each other uncertainly as Nick passes between them. Glen raises an eyebrow almost imperceptibly; Sergio gives a half-shake of his head. Then they both square their shoulders again, face the crowd and go back to looking like tough motherfuckers.
There is no line to wait in once Nick's inside the hospital. His footfalls echo down the long central concourse. He steps aside occasionally to let the EMTs go jogging out with their splayed-out patients. Other than that it's incredibly quiet. There are no doctors strolling along, no nurses at the main desk when he finally gets there. Just a girl in her late twenties, wearing all-black like the Feds outside. She's talking on the phone.
"What do you mean not giving triage?" She's saying. She's hot. She's got long black hair and penciled eyebrows, a sharp, v-shaped jawline. What look like C-cups. Nick's a sucker for chicks in uniform. If she were some old hag of a nurse he'd just haul up his t-shirt and show her his rash, get her attention real quick, but he's suddenly embarrassed.
She looks up, sees this chubby, freckled guy staring at her tits. "Hold on," she says, "yes? How'd you get in here."
"Oh," says Nick, "I have smallpox."
"I've got it," he insists. "It's all over my stomach alright, I'm freaking out but I've done a lot of Capoeira and I'm trying to control myself right now, so can I get a shot or something? Please?"
"Let me call you back," the FEMA chick says into the phone. She turns and stares at Nick like he's some kind of alien. "You've done a lot of what?" she asks.
"Capoeira. Think like yoga mixed with martial arts and dancing. Anyway I woke up with this shit on my stomach," he patters, now about as un-laid-back as he's ever been. "At first I thought --"
"Hell, why not," she throws her hands up, "If you've got it, you're certainly the only one around here that I've heard of. Go up to... um... umumummmm.... room 991. Ninth floor, East wing. There's no one up there but I'll send someone, whenever I can find a doctor around here. For some reason they've all been reassigned."
"Great," he grimaces. "Is there, like, anything I should do for now to try and, y'know, keep it from getting worse?"
"Don't scratch it," she shrugs.
"Okay, cool." She's sure been awfully easygoing about all of this, and it's calmed him down a lot. He suddenly feels kind of hungry. "Hey, I'm kind of hungry," he says, "can I get a burger or something..." gesturing vaguely toward the sign that says "Cafeteria."
"It's closed," she sighs.
"Got it. Thanks."
He leaves the desk, buttons the elevator. The girl goes back to talking on the phone. While Nick's waiting for the lift, he keeps hearing the girl say something about Rose oil. That's what it sounds like. Or maybe Rosebola. Is Rosebola some kind of other weird disease? Then elevator dings cheerfully and he's up and away.
The ninth floor is downright eerie. Only the emergency lights are on. There's not a soul around. All the doors to the rooms are open; through some of them Nick can see empty beds still swaddled in soiled sheets. Bedpans stand full by the doorways, emanating their sharp, stank smells. But he finds 991 pretty easily, down near the end of the hall, and the beds are nice and clean. He takes the one closest to the big picture window, from which there's an amazingly clear view of the Burbank skyline and the hills. Off to the right, the San Fernando Valley opens up with the glass towers of Universal City, Studios and Theme Park in the foreground. Far beyond the skyscrapers, deep in shake-roofed tangle of the Valley's suburban badlands, he sees several columns of thick black smoke. The smoke rises silently, in slow motion, to mingle with puffy clouds that hang in a dying amethyst sky.
Nick keeps scoping out the scene. Nine stories below, the crowd around the hospital entrance is growing thicker by the minute, people pouring over the sidewalks and out into the street. Currents ripple through the crowd as the EMTs do their job of evacuating actually sick people to other hospitals. From Nick's vantage point he can see a dozen camouflaged army trucks rumbling up Ventura Boulevard, around the corner from the crowd. At about the same moment as he notices this, the front of the mob makes a sudden lunge toward the door of the hospital, as though they're trying to break in by force. Fear grips Nick for a moment; if they flood in now, how long will it take for him to see a doctor? But even quicker than the little wave crashes against the entrance, the crowd is repulsed forcefully back toward the street. Some at the rear begin to scatter. One or two appear to have been trampled. Nick can't hear anything other than the soft whirr of the air conditioning, but it almost looks like they were shot at.
At exactly the time the crowd is tripping back on its heels, the line of canvas-covered army trucks comes rolling up the block behind them and stops there, forming a solid wall that blocks any retreat. Guys in camouflage jump down from the backs of the trucks and start ushering people up into them.
Cool, Nick thinks, so they'll go get their shots somewhere else. Now he's the only patient in the hospital. How long can it take for a doctor to find the only patient in a hospital?
He pulls up his t-shirt and looks at his pink and white tummy. The rash is definitely going away. It doesn't even itch anymore. Maybe it was that new fabric softener he used on the sheets. Still, better safe than sorry. Might as well get a doctor to check it out.
Nick flops down on the disinfected white sheets. He grapples for a moment with the bed's more advanced reclining features until he's semi-upright, then finds the remote with his left hand and turns on the TV.
The screen displays a static news infographic, small peacock in the corner, a faded-blue photo of a large syringe on a darker blue background, hard to pick out between the lettering of the white sans-serif text; it's a list of triage centers and their addresses. All of them are well-known to any sports fan: Dodger Stadium; the Forum; Angel Stadium; and of course, the Rose Bowl. Rosebola.