written by James Rada, Jr.
A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment
2: Learning the Rules
Tim Ross straightened up from the railing of the barracks-like housing unit at the Maryland Tuberculosis Hospital. He looked at his hands. They were shaking.
He wasn’t afraid. He knew that. It would take a lot more than a whispered warning to cause him fear. The air this high up was a little chilly, but not enough to make him shake. Had he lost his tolerance to cold? Or was it the tuberculosis (TB)? He had lost his speed and stamina to the TB that racked his body. His strength was going.
Tim focused on his hands and stilled the trembling. Then he closed his hands into fists and hammered them down onto the railing and was rewarded with a deep “wham” that seemed to vibrate through the wood.
Tim smiled. He might not be strong enough to fight any longer, but he was far from weak… and far from giving in to the TB. He would fight this, and just like with his boxing matches, he would win.
He left the pavilion and walked to the dining hall. He enjoyed the walk and paused occasionally for quick sets of deep-knee bends or to throw shadow punches.
The dining hall was a stone building connected to the rear of the administration building and was roughly in the center of the surrounding pavilions. He entered the building and paused. The room was filled with rectangular tables covered with tablecloths and surrounded with wooden chairs. People moved through a cafeteria line with trays of food.
What caught Tim’s attention was the people. They didn’t look sick, or at least not very sick. Should he take that as a good sign? They were young adults in their 20s to the elderly. Some were dressed as if this was a night out. Others looked like they had walked in from a garden.
Tim got in line with a tray and got an open-faced turkey sandwich covered in gravy, green beans, and mashed potatoes. He found an empty table and sat down. He ate slowly, paying more attention to the people in the dining room. They seemed too quiet. People were talking, but they acted as if they were in a library, whispering to each other. Some cast suspicious glances around themselves. More than a few watched Tim as if he was a threat as a new person at the hospital.
He had finished half of his sandwich when a man about his age sat down across the table from him.
“Hi, there. My name is Max Wenschof,” the man said.
“Tim Ross.” He reached across the table and shook Max’s hand.
“You’re the new guy. You don’t look too sick. Well, I guess if you were, you wouldn’t be in here. Where are you staying?”
“I’m in Pavillion Five. What do you mean if I was sick, I wouldn’t be in here? Doesn’t everyone in here have TB?”
“Sure, sure, but we either have mild cases or we’re on the mend. Some might even be ready to go home. The real sick patients stay in the receiving hospital. Nurses and orderlies bring them their meals.”
“Oh, it’s good to know I’m not too sick.”
Max clapped him on the shoulder. “Of course not. You can walk around.” Max cut into his sandwich and took a bite.“By the way, I’m in the shack right next door to you. Four.”
“That’s what everyone calls the pavilions. Too fancy schmancy. They’re shacks.” Max paused. “Are you from Baltimore? You sound like you might be.”
Tim nodded. “I lived out near Sparrows Point.”
“This place must be a bit of a shock for you, then.”
Tim snorted. “You don’t know the half of it.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll get along fine once you learn the rules.”
“That’s what I hear, but no one has told me what they are.”
Max chuckled. “They are vague on purpose. They would rather you break a rule and catch you at it, so they can correct you. And if you don’t break enough rules, I think they make them up, so they can punish you.”
Max nodded and concentrated on his feet.
Tim wondered what sort of punishment they could inflict, but Max seemed not to want to talk about it.
“So, what is there to do here?”
“Officially, you can go to the recreation hall. It has cards, games, and a radio, although you can’t pick up much up here on the mountain at night.”
“That doesn’t sound like much.”
“You said officially. Are there things to do that are unofficial?”
“Well…” Max looked around and then lowered his voice. “A good-looking guy like your yourself could probably find a cute nurse for a little romance. They’re not supposed to fraternize in that way, but it has happened. You could even find a woman among the patients. It depends on how much you want to kiss a gal with TB, but hey, I say, it can’t make you any sicker.” Tim didn’t point out that was exactly what Max was expecting the nurses to do.
“What if I just want a drink?”
Max drew back. “Officially, the word is that absolutely no alcohol is allowed on the property. Not only is it Dr. Cullen’s rule, but it’s the law.”
“And, unofficially?” Tim asked softly.
Max clapped him on the shoulder. “See? You are learning about this place already. We are near the Pen-Mar resort and far from police. There are stories of lots of stills and moonshiners in the woods on this mountain. They sell to the resort and places like Hagerstown and Frederick.” He slowed his speech. “Some of them are very close by.”
“Are you saying there’s a still on the property?”
“I would never say that. You can draw your own conclusions.”
Tim shook his head. “Why does everyone seem so nervous that they won’t talk directly?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He suddenly concentrated on his sandwich as an orderly walked past the table.
“I just don’t get it,” Tim said.
Max sighed and looked around. “You seem like a nice guy, Tim, but you’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to be corrected too many times. Watch what you say and who you say it to. Don’t attract too much attention to yourself, but you also want people to notice if you are gone.”
“That’s all I can say.”
Tim shook his head. He didn’t need another cryptic warning. He needed answers. He wondered if he tried to leave the hospital and go elsewhere, would he even be allowed?
A cute red-headed nurse who still looked like a teen walked into the dining hall. She looked around and then walked over to Tim’s table.
“Mr. Ross?” she asked.
“That’s me,” Tim said with a forced smile.
“Dr. Vallingham will see you now.”
“Dr. Vallingham? I thought Dr. Cullen was in charge?”
The nurse smiled. “Oh, he is, but he can’t see all the patients here and run the hospital, too. Dr. Vallingham is the assistant director.”
Tim wondered why he had not heard of this doctor before now. Dr. Victor Cullen was the man credited for the hospital’s success. Not only had he saved the lives of many of the patients here, he had also recovered from TB himself. He was the one Tim wanted treating him.
Tim stood up. Max laid a hand on Tim’s arm. He glanced at the nurse, then back at Tim.
“Remember what I said.”
Tim nodded. “I will, and I will see you around.”
He turned and followed the nurse out of the dining hall. They walked through the hallway back to the administration building.
“You look barely old enough to be out of high school,” Tim said to the nurse.
The girl laughed. “That’s about right. I graduated last year. I go to the nursing school here.”
“Are all the nurses here students?”
“Most of them. Most of the nurses here are also former patients.”
Tim paused and stared at her. “You had TB?”
The young woman shook her head. “No, but my father did. He was a patient here until he died. I wanted to do something to honor him.”
“How do you like it here?” Tim asked, wondering if he would be given another mysterious warning.
“I enjoy it. People are sick but not as bad as a lot of patients in regular hospitals. It’s given me time to get used to dealing with ill people.”
“I guess that would be important.”
“Some of the pictures I’ve seen in class make me queasy, so I definitely need time to make the adjustment.”
She led Tim to an office on the second floor and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said a voice from inside.
The nurse opened the door. Tim stepped inside and met the man whose hands his life was in.
Administration Building, Maryland Sanatorium