Synopsis: War, cancer, and boredom challenge children in a hospital ward. A storyteller takes them and their caregiver to a magical place.
Challenge #2 of NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest…48 hours, genre: fairy tale - object: a tourniquet - place: a swamp…It’s not my best work and I had even shorter amount of time to put it together, but it was a cool idea I think.
A boy wearing a surgical mask watches the outline of a neon toad swimming across imaginary water underneath him. His hospital pajamas slide down his too-thin waist as he leans over the holographic swamp in the floor of the children’s playroom. He touches the iridescent surface with his finger, sending virtual waves over to the other side.
“Hey! You scared away my dragonfly!” another child cries as a shimmering insect flutters upward and dissipates into nothingness where the holo-field ends.
“Sorry,” says the boy Nius, going back to his toad friend. The other child whimpers until an older girl hands him a toy horse.
“Here you go Thomas,” she says. It appeases him, for a time.
Whimpers and wonderment within the span of minutes. It still applies to childhood even inside the hospital playroom. Even in the pediatric cancer ward. Even during wartime in embattled America in 2089.
The high-tech playroom gives the illusion of escape. A holographic swamp provides a bright, biological world to explore. Painted trees on the walls become three-dimensional and grow and die with the seasons. The artificial grass surrounding the swamp repels microbes. However, everything has its limits. Hanna, the older girl, has lost the ability to suspend her disbelief. Nius has observed his frog do this exact routine dozens of times.
“Hello everyone, how are we doing?”
A nurse escorts another patient into the playroom. Freyna wears an oxygen mask and scratches at her IV. The nurse helps her sit at the edge of the holo-swamp and points to some lively tadpoles swimming around.
“Nurse Pa’lia, are we going to evacuate?” Zaccus, a pre-teen asks, pushing marbles around.
They hear another round of muffled blasts.
“Zaccus, I am certain we are safe here,” Pa’lia says.
The playroom doors open and a woman with a volunteer apron enters.
“Lady Edda!” squeals Hanna.
“Hello! Would you like a story?”
“Yes!” she cries.
Pa’lia taps a screen on the wall. Opaque grass carpet replaces the swamp in a flash. Hanna, Thomas, and Nius sit down. Zaccus hobbles over. Pa’lia helps Freyna sit down and Lady Edda begins:
“Well children, have you ever lost anything?” The children nod. “Have you ever put something in your pocket and later found it missing?” The group nods more vigorously.
“You know why that is?” They shake their heads. “It’s the gnomes.”
“What’s a gnome?” Thomas asks Lady Edda.
“Gnomes are magical creatures living underground. Little portly fellows. They are great thieves! Quiet. Unnoticeable. They take our things and disappear! Poof!” Lady Edda puffs her hands for effect. “They even live in the hospital,” she adds.
“Makes sense, we lose equipment all the time,” Pa’lia remarks. A boom startles them. Thomas jumps into Hanna’s lap.
“I lost my teddy yesterday!” Thomas yelps, “Maybe the gnomes took him!”
“Those naughty gnomes!” Lady Edda continues, “Not many people know that you can stop them.”
“How?” Hanna sits up.
“You make a trade. If you empty your pockets for them they will leave you a gift of unmeasurable beauty in return.”
“Ha!” Zaccus spits out.
“Shh!” Hanna hushes. Lady Edda ignores his adolescent quip.
“First we empty our pockets. Go on, everyone.”
Thomas puts the toy horse in the middle of the grass. Hanna places down some colored pencils. Zaccus rolls his marbles into the pile. Freyna adds a costume pearl necklace.
“You too,” Lady Edda encourages Pa’lia. She empties her uniform pockets on top of the playful paraphernalia: gauze packets, syringes, a rubber tourniquet, and her handy stethoscope.
“Now, we sing…” Lady Edda chants:
Gnomes, gnomes, go build you homes—and leave things in my pockets alone.
Unless, unless, you leave me a gift—then take my things and begone aswift!
“Together now, let’s close our eyes and say it…” The children and Pa’lia close their eyes and repeat the chant. Then they watch the pile of items attentively. A siren wails in the distance. Pa’lia’s eyes divert to a screen on the wall blinking red messages.
Zaccus breaks the silence, “This is stupid, it’s just—"
And then, a gnome pops out of the pile.
“Look!” Thomas gasps. They squint their eyes. More gnomes pop out. Pa’lia notices that the floor suddenly becomes wet. They scoot backward as a real swamp materializes in place of the holographic one.
“What is…going on?” Pa’lia reaches down swiping her hand in the water.
“Just watch,” Lady Edda whispers.
A miniature island morphs out of the marbles, the pencils into a small castle. Thomas’ toy horse turns into a tiny unicorn galloping across the water. The gauze patches transform into lily pads. Nius’ holographic frog returns, jumping up as holographic light and splashing down with flesh and skin.
The children take in the tiny new magical world. Several gnomes wave from the parapet of their castle. The banks of the island shine with the pearls from Freyna’s necklace.
Pa’lia gets up to the playroom control screen, but it melts into the wall. The playroom begins to fall away. The sounds of salvos fade. Pa’lia turns back to the magical realm and watches her rubber tourniquet elongate into a bridge that extends from castle to edge of the swamp. Her stethoscope morphs into a blue heron, the syringes into glowing earthworms, the carpet into dewy grass. The hospital fades. The swamp teems with magical life that grows and grows until it consumes the playroom and the bridge is big enough for them to step on. The children and Pa’lia marvel at it all.
And then they notice Lady Edda, who has sprouted great white wings, armor in place of her volunteer apron, and a winged helmet atop her larger than life body.
“Alright children, you won’t need those here.”
With a flick of her feathery wings the surgical masks disappear, the crutches turn into a tree, and their hospital gowns change into magnificent clothing.
“Let’s go meet the gnomes, shall we?” Lady Edda says, stepping onto the bridge.