A few months ago, Nicco Gabrielli had the privilege of celebrating twenty years as a nurse at Diggs General Hospital. He and his coworkers had dinner and drinks, mostly drinks, at his second favorite restaurant. His favorite spot was too crowded to accommodate the group that day. It was always interesting how they would start out talking about family and other things outside of work. Inevitably, they would land on complaints and absurdities of their on-the-job experiences. Even copious amounts of liquor couldn’t dissuade them from talking about work.
Over the course of two decades, Nicco had seen it all, or at least he thought. He saw the evolution of his early years when patients frequently asked if he was a doctor, despite the large bold ‘RN’ on his highly visible badge. Halfway through that second decade, the general consensus shifted to ‘yes, male nurses are a thing.’
Nicco had worked in pretty much every hospital department over the years. To the surprise of his colleagues, he enjoyed working as a floor nurse the most. He wasn’t concerned about moving up the management ranks or becoming a practitioner. Staying in that position for the remainder of his career was perfectly fine with him. He didn’t have kids and had invested his money well, so he could feasibly see the next major celebration with his coworkers being a retirement party within ten years.
As far as seeing it all, no one could have convinced Nicco otherwise. He was on the scene when an ER patient was having ten AA batteries removed from his stomach–it wasn’t a child. Another incident involved a young couple brought in after drinking hand sanitizer to cure an STD they had unwittingly transferred to their mouths. Even those outlandish stories would pale in comparison to what he encountered one chilly day in February.
While restocking his cart, he overheard a friend named Jill talking to a younger nurse about several car accident victims being transferred from the ER to intensive care. One was a male driver who was in critical condition after sustaining a traumatic head injury. Two others were a woman and her son whose SUV was hit head-on by the man’s sedan. They were both in critical condition, in and out of consciousness. Nicco had seen more victims of vehicle crashes than he’d care to recall. What piqued his interest in this particular case was the condition of the fourth victim.
Inside the trunk of the vehicle driven by the man was a round package wrapped in newspaper, plastic bags, and duct tape. Within the package was a human head. This head occupied a room several doors down from the unconscious male driver. Connected to various tubes and monitors, it was very much alive. Nicco couldn’t help but insert himself into the conversation after hearing this.
“Hang on, Jill,” Nicco said while placing the last few packs of gauze and wipes on his cart. “There’s no way I can pretend I didn’t hear that. Did you say there’s a living severed head in a patient room?”
Jill and the nurse both glared at him, intimating that he should continue minding his own business. Sibyl, the younger nurse, recently transferred from the Intravenous Access Team to the Intensive Care Unit. She resembled a stocky child standing next to Jill, who towered almost a foot over her. Jill is closer to his age, though years of smoking have aged her considerably. She and Nicco frequently swapped stories and talked mess about some of their most obnoxious coworkers.
“Come on,” Nicco pleaded, almost as if his life depended on him being in on the secret. “You know me. If it’s something we have to keep close to the chest, you know I’m solid.”
Jill hooked Nicco’s sleeve, pulling him in closer. “If it was up to me, I’d announce it over the PA system. Apparently, some outside folks are being brought in to deal with it. So Sibyl and everyone else up there were strongly discouraged from talking about anything they’d seen or heard. Couldn’t be me. I’d just be waiting for one of those bastards to threaten to fire me. It would be all over the evening news so fast. Then they’d get slapped with a lawsuit.” Jill looked like she was about to salivate.
“So is it true? Did you see anything?”
Sibyl gazed sheepishly at the floor as Jill checked to ensure the med room door was fully closed. “Sibyl showed me the chart notes. It had the strangest wording–a patient missing a significant portion of his torso and all of his limbs. Well, you know how I am. I pretended I needed to deliver something to the nurses’ station. I hung around until I saw them wheeling the bed up with curtains all around it. They stopped just long enough for me to get a glimpse of it through an opening.”
“It?” Nicco asked.
“What the hell else would I call it? If you saw somebody wheeling in a woman’s severed leg, would you call it a ‘her?’ Anyway, when the respiratory therapist parted the curtain, what I was looking at was definitely not a person. It was a head. Eyes blinking. Mouth moving. The rest of the stretcher was as flat as my ass. There was no body there! And why did they need a respiratory therapist when the thing had no lungs?”
Nicco wouldn’t consider Jill’s ass flat, but maybe she had some internalized aspirations. Jill was also known to exaggerate details on occasion. “How do you know you weren’t looking at one of those older stretchers that was sunk in a bit. Plus, if the person lost limbs, there wouldn’t be much of them to fill everything out.”
“Look, I’m just telling you what we read and what I saw with my own two eyes.” Jill paused for a moment to clock the movement of a shadow through the space below the door. “How ’bout you go up and check it out yourself. I’m not going up there again, even if you paid me.”
“I work up there, and I definitely don’t want to see it,” Sibyl affirmed. “There’s either something evil going on, or somebody’s doing some kind of sick experimentation.”
Nicco almost forgot she was in the room. He wasn’t a believer in the occult or the supernatural. There was usually a scientific explanation for everything, even if we didn’t have the means to uncover that explanation. The severed head might be intact, and they were keeping it viable to possibly harvest something from it. Eyes? That wouldn’t make any sense. Tongue? Maybe the face. Face transplants would probably be a regular thing in five or ten years. It occurred to Nicco that there had to be a criminal investigation in play, regardless of the head’s condition. “Are there many cops up there yet?”
“Yeah,” Sibyl replied. “The driver is handcuffed to the bed with an officer in the room at all times. He was conscious for a little while–the man, not the cop–but they had to induce a coma.”
“I wonder what they charged him with,” Nicco pondered.
“I think the car he was driving was stolen.” Sibyl was still reluctant to say much but continued. “Dr. Howse overheard two officers arguing about what else to charge him with. One was saying attempted murder since the…head isn’t dead yet. The other suggested they wait for more evidence because the head might have been inside the car before the guy stole it. If the woman or her son dies, he might be facing vehicular homicide or something too.”
“Are any of them your patient?”
“No, but we rotate next shift. I’ll still be working for half of it, so I think I’ll be checking vitals on the driver at least.”
“When you find out for sure, could you request for me to assist you? I’m working a double too, so I’ll probably be around with very little to do down here.”
“I will,” Sibyl said. “You used to work in ICU, right?”
“Yeah, I’ll make up some excuse about possibly picking up extra shifts in ICU if my manager asks.”
“You two knock yourselves out,” Jill said. “I don’t want no part of it. Even if the part is just a head.”
The meeting disbanded, and Nicco finished his shift with much anxiety and anticipation. Normally, he didn’t pay much attention to shift changes until people started packing up and others were clocking in.
An evening newspaper in the break room was mainly intact, so Nicco scanned it for possible reports of the car crash, although he knew it was more likely to appear in the morning paper. When eleven o’clock rolled around, the local news station mentioned the near-fatal collision but very few details about the victims.
It was close to midnight when his pager went off. He knew it was Sibyl but returned the call as if clueless. “This is Nicco returning a call. Whatchu need?”
There was a long stretch of dead air on the line before Sibyl spoke up. “Can you come up and assist me with the patient?”
More dead air. “Yeah.”
He figured he’d be brimming with anticipation when the time came. Instead, his nerves got the best of him. Standing in the elevator, he pressed number six with a sweaty middle finger. There was an unsettling finality to the elevator doors closing. The ascent even felt slower than usual.
Nicco stepped off before the doors could fully open. He got a start when he almost walked into Sibyl standing right beside the elevator. “You ready?” she asked apprehensively.
Nicco nodded as he followed her past the nurses’ station, where the only staff member there didn’t bother looking up to acknowledge them. Sibyl opened the door to the well-lit hallway he had been down many times. They arrived at a room near the end of the hall.
“OK. Here we go.” Sibyl sighed uneasily. “I’ll chart and take the readings before you open the curtain.”
“I don’t think I can look at it…him.” Sibyl seemed as if she might bolt back down the hallway any second. “When I’m done with his chart, could you handle the visual observation part?”
Nicco had seen severed limbs on more than one occasion. A severed head couldn’t be much different, especially if it was sleeping. “Sure. That’s fine.”
“You wanna know something weird?”
As if a living severed head was not weird enough. “Sure.”
“When they were working on the driver, they noticed that his facial skin was becoming necrotic while the rest of his body was in almost perfect condition despite being in a car accident. One of the doctors joked that if his head dies, they should donate his body to this guy.”
Nicco chuckled nervously.
The young nurse opened the door to a dimly lit room with the curtain encircling the bed. That was atypical for an ICU room, but almost nothing was typical about this unique situation. The extra equipment crammed into this tiny space added to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Nicco found a crevice he could occupy without hindering Sibyl’s work.
He scanned the room while Sibyl read the monitors and scribbled on her pad. After finishing, she stepped completely away from the bed, backing all the way to the wall near the door. “OK, all yours.”
Nicco cautiously crept toward the curtain. A fluorescent light above the sink and a single security light provided the only illumination for examining this medical curiosity.
“Go on,” Sibyl urged. “I don’t wanna be in here any longer than I need.”
Nicco slowly opened the curtain, revealing the substantial mound under the covers and the face of a middle-aged man with light stubble sleeping peacefully despite numerous tubes and electrodes attached to his head. Nicco turned to Sibyl, who was facing away. “OK, you and Jill pranked me good,” Nicco whispered angrily. “I totally believed–”
Sibyl held up a hand without turning her head. “Pull back the covers.”
Nicco felt the moisture returning to his hands. Now he really hoped the man wouldn’t wake up. Grasping the corner of the thick blanket and sheet, he cautiously peeled it away. Beneath it, he found rubber, silicone, and plastic that made up a headless CPR dummy placed strategically below the severed head. It was identical to the ones he had trained others on. A pillow rested lengthwise where legs should have been.
“They didn’t want him to experience the shock of seeing that he has no body, so they made one for him,” Sibyl whispered loudly.
‘Has no body and has nobody,’ Nicco repeated in his head. The patient was listed as John D on his chart. The driver who might also be this man’s attempted murderer was listed as John Doe–the longer name assigned to the longer man. Glancing back at the head sent waves of goosebumps over Nicco’s body. A weakness wobbled his legs, notifying the rest of him that it was OK to faint. He suddenly realized he no longer wanted to be in this room. Observing the hunk of pink flesh bandaged a few inches beneath the chin made him ill. “You ready?” he asked Sibyl.
“You know it.”
He described the condition of the head as best he could. There was no life support, but the head maintained a healthy complexion. Nicco turned to dictate his observations to Sibyl. She dutifully wrote everything down, dismissing his concerns about it not being her own observations. Turning back to the bed, he locked onto a pair of intense green eyes staring back at him. Nicco’s skin crawled as he fixated on the irises, the face, the head. Its expression turned into a scowl as the eyes darted around the room before landing back on Nicco.
Nicco tried to convince himself that this was just another patient who lost some limbs in a horrible accident, but it wasn’t. He had already pulled back the metaphorical curtain. Staring him down was a dismembered head that should have been dead hours ago. Its mouth moved over gritted teeth. Then it opened to silently ‘shout’ what Nicco could only guess were satanic incantations–without a voice. Nicco could now understand why Jill referred to it as an ‘it.’ This was no patient. It was an abomination. He closed the curtain, unable to bear the ghastly sight.
Before Nicco could say a word, Sibyl was at the monitors checking the elevated readings, still avoiding eye contact with the bed. “What did you do?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Nicco said. “I was just looking at it and talking to you.”
“You stay here while I go get the doctor.”
“Fuck that. How ’bout you stay here?”
The woman’s short legs had whisked her out the door before Nicco could begin to plead his case. All he could hear was the abrasive noise of her scrubs rubbing together between her thighs. After that sound faded, the sound that stood out over the occasional beep of the monitors was the sticky smacking of lips and a tongue on the other side of the curtain. It was still trying to talk.
Nicco knew he needed to keep everything professional and show the same level of compassion that he’d have for any other patient. He carefully parted the curtain again. Through the opening, he reconnected with the unwavering eyes that had likely been staring at him through the thin fabric. Without thinking about the absurdity, he asked, “Are you in any pain?” He wanted to slap himself so hard.
There was only a cold stare that lasted for an eternity. Then the head distinctly mouthed the words, ‘Get out.’ Nicco didn’t move a muscle, so with flared nostrils, the head followed up with a more pronounced, ‘GET OUT.’
Nicco robotically closed the curtain and backed up to the door. He opened it while still staring at the gloomily lit veil. He imagined the head willing its detached silicone body to rise from the bed and assault him. Once Nicco was on the other side of the closed door, he eased the tension in his muscles and clenched jaw. Thin layers of sweat rested upon his brow and top lip. Leaning against the wall, he slid down to the floor, head drooping. Footsteps and thigh fabric could be heard in the background. They won’t have to worry about him ever coming to this room again, even after the patient is long gone.
Copyright 2022 Darrell Winfrey