Something's Wrong

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Toby knew when he heard Quinn's voice, before she put words together, that something was wrong. When he put down the phone, Cass insisted on driving him to Quinn's house. They picked her up and then headed to the hospital, where Quinn's father had been transported only a matter of minutes before.

Toby and Quinn rode in the backseat. Cass checked the rear-view mirror, maternal instinct dividing her attention between the two of them and the road. Quinn buried her face in the crook of Toby's neck, between the strong line of his jaw and shoulder. Her eyes were closed and her lashes, stiff and wet, brushed his skin. He pulled her close, holding her against his chest, her chin trembling against the slightly electric sensation of his skin.

Her ear was pressed against his clavicle, and the throb of his heart lulled her into a sort of half slumber. The sound recalled a large conch shell that Quinn's father brought out on occasion when she was a young girl. Dennis Moore had acquired the shell while in the Navy, and kept it in a steamer trunk that had been handed down to him by his grandfather.

Quinn was fascinated with the shell when she was young; it's sharp, curling ridges. It was a swirl of color, the same hue as skin, but made of material midway between glass and bone. Dennis would hold it up to Quinn's ear when she was a girl, and ask if she could hear the ocean. The lip of the shell curled in on itself like a very large ear that hid an echo of the world's beginning.

They parked and entered through the emergency room. It was like walking into a space station. Sickness hung on the air, an alternate reality as foreign to the function of everyday life as dark matter in deep space.

They inquired after Dennis Moore, and a receptionist informed them he'd been transported to the Intensive Care Unit. When they arrived at Intensive Care, they were curtly informed that only immediate family was allowed in the patient's room.

"I'm his daughter." Quinn pleaded. Without further explanation, she grabbed Toby's hand and dragged him along beside her.

Arriving at his bedside, they found Dennis Moore sick and disheveled, and in a feverish stupor. A nurse stood by the IV beside his bed, monitoring several tubes running from a machine into his arm. He was wearing a hospital gown, his entire backside visible where the flaps of the robe hung open beneath string ties. A liquid that looked like brackish water was smeared in a large circle on his back, and at the center was an angry red puncture mark midway down the lower end of his spine.

Lying on his side, Dennis' eyes goggled wildly back and forth between Quinn and Toby. One of his pupils was dilated to the point that his entire eye seemed engulfed in the inky black pool at its center. The pupil of his other eye was small, and ringed by an iris the same shade of hazel as Quinn's. The stubble under his nose was crusted in dried blood interspersed with a thick yellow discharge.

He stared at Toby for a long moment, and asked in a rattling whisper, "Are you real?"

Toby looked up at the nurse. Dennis drew in a long, labored breath that seemed to dissipate in his lungs. There was a long pause before he drew another breath, and a doctor came running into the room.

"Out! Now! You can't be in here..." he yelled frantically, forcing Quinn and Toby from the room, and then drawing the curtains around Dennis's bed.

The sparsely furnished waiting area faced a nurse's station across from the elevator. The walls were a nondescript color, and lined by boxy chairs upholstered in vinyl, which helped achieve the look of a rest stop on the road from reality to oblivion. Toby ran his hand through Quinn's hair as they watched people come and go from the waiting area. Several hours passed, but the time failed to register as a huge swath of moments slipped away unnoticed.

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