SHORT STORY | The Last Voice

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A chill ran through Luisa’s spine. Multiple screeches were ringing in her ears, but she was the only one that could hear them. At the end of her 36-hour shift in the ER, her vision was blurry and her head was throbbing uncontrollably. Her medication had worked for a while, but with the amount of stress she has been under she might need a different dose. It took 6 months and a hospitalization for her to be sane again, but the quiet did not last for long. 

She went to the pharmacy to buy a week’s worth of prescription and booked a car to her parents’ house, about 30 minutes away but usually two hours because of traffic. When Luisa arrived home, her mother was standing at the doorway. She kissed her on the cheek and told her to go back to bed. As she entered the kitchen, she saw the food her mother prepared. She thought about how their house was too big for two people. 

Once a grand mansion with a sprawling garden, it was now a glorified storage space with a lifetime’s worth of clutter. Luisa’s mother had a beautiful voice that once graced every radio station in the country, but she gave up her stardom when she gave birth to Luisa. As her mother got older, her coughs became frequent, her fevers would come and go, and each day she became a shadow of her former self.  Luisa thought to herself, no wonder her father had left them.

Her mother had always insisted that raising a skilled doctor like Luisa was her greatest happiness. Luisa didn’t have the heart to tell her mother that she had long lost the passion for saving lives, she just didn’t know what else to do. Every night, she would either grab a bottle or her medication. Both of them were the only ways she could put herself to sleep.

Luisa awakened to hundreds of messages on her phone saying that her hospital received their first case of the novel coronavirus. While they have heard about it before, no one really knew how to treat it. 

When she learned more details about the novel coronavirus, Luisa realized that anyone could be a carrier, including her. Luisa went to her mother’s room and explained the situation. She told her mother to stay in her room and keep a safe distance from Luisa.

Every day, Luisa clawed her way through the boxes to find any protective equipment she could. Day after day, it became harder to find one. People have hoarded all the facemasks and now there is little left for medical professionals.

Her sorority sister, Patricia, caught her searching for more masks. Luisa shared that it’s for her mother who is ill. Patricia offered her last mask and told her she can just reuse the one she is already wearing. With shaking hands and crying sounds in her ears, Luisa picked up the mask and hid it in her bag like gold.

The next day, the hospital’s city entered a lockdown with no means of public transportation. Luisa needed to walk several hours to go home after her shift from the ER. She was exhausted, the sound of a little girl who was crying in her head echoing the walls was making her head throb but still, she spent hours disinfecting her home. There was nothing she could do but scrub and wipe away every surface she could. 

With hands dry from all the washing, she heard her cellphone make a sound.

Luisa sees a message from their medical school chat. A patient lied about the travel history and exposed hundreds of patients and staff to the virus. Luisa needed to return right away to take the place of their possibly infected colleagues. She took a shower, put bandaids on her blisters and started walking back to work.

The lack of machines meant she had to choose between two critically ill married patients. The husband told her he has already done his part to provide for their family, but their grandchildren still needed the warmth of their grandmother. He asked to borrow her phone to record one last message for his family. They gave his wife the last remaining ventilator, but neither of them survived the night. Luisa would hear the old man’s voice every time she passed the room and each time, she tried so hard to hold back tears.

Luisa didn’t have a proper sleep in days. There was an alcohol ban and her medications were out of stock. The voices in her head were merging. At night she would scream into her pillow until they stopped.

Her mother’s condition worsened, so she needed to bring her to the hospital. They walked for an hour through the badly constructed streets before a red sedan pulled over and the driver rolled down the window. The driver said he was on the way to the Palawan Express to transfer money to his family outside Metro Manila, but they were all closed. 

When he saw Luisa in scrubs, he offered to bring them to the hospital for free. They arrived at a checkpoint, and Luisa told the police she is a medical professional. The man in uniform smirked and asked for five hundred pesos. A chill ran through her spine, and heat started forming in her ears. She gripped her hands so tight that her palms bled. Her hands were shaking when she passed him the stained bills.

Luisa and her mother arrived at the hospital with no beds or test kits. She left her on a seat while she prepared to work another shift. Luisa received word that her colleague, Patricia, was in critical condition. She had intubated a TB patient without the proper protective gear. When the patient expired, they had no idea if they were infected with the COVID-19 or not. 

For the first time in a long time, their hospital group chat was silent. Patricia could have been any of them. Luisa went to the bathroom, looked at her face with marks from wearing an N95 facemask for hours and touched the grooves on her face. The voices in her head are now louder than she can ever remember. She was nauseous. Her hands became icy, and she started shaking. The next thing she knew, there was vomit on the sink. She washed her face, put on her gear, took a deep breath and went back into the field. 

A week later her mother was told to go home to make room in the hospital for more urgent cases. They could not acquire a test kit for her, so the bill could not be covered by the government. Luisa had no idea how she could pay the half a million in hospital fees that awaited her, but her mother was feeling better and that was all that mattered. 

A box of meals are delivered to the Emergency Room from a nearby restaurant. She only ate half her spaghetti and saved the rest for her mother. 

When Luisa finally arrived home, her mother did not greet her at the door. She strips her clothes outside the house, careful to put everything in a plastic bag for washing and made sure she was clean before she stepped through the door. 

Luisa called out to her mother to eat. When her mother did not emerge from her room, she tried to call her mother’s mobile phone but there was no answer. She knocked on the door — once, twice, three times. Something was not right. She swung open the door, frantically looked around the room and she saw her mother, passed out on the floor.

Despite the exhaustion, she felt a rush of adrenaline at the sight of her mother. She rushed to her mother’s side, checked her breathing and pulse. She checked her mother’s eyes. Negative. She gave her CPR. Nothing. For the first time in a long time, she held her mother’s hand and cried.

It took Luisa several hours calling up different crematoriums that refused her because they were afraid that the body was infectious. When she finally picked up the urn, she realized how there could be no wake for their extended family and her mother’s friends to mourn. Everyone still could not leave their homes. 

As soon as she arrived home, she put her mother’s urn on a table in front of her graduation certificates and medals. She may no longer be able to save her own mother, but she could still save someone else’s. 

The country was on lockdown for a month with no end in sight. Many medical personnel, including Luisa, were in and out of the line of duty. Many of them have not gone home for fear of infecting their families. Patricia miraculously regained her health and was sent home to quarantine herself until she was fit to work again. Some of their other colleagues were not as lucky and died.

Luisa was working non-stop for two weeks. The world around her was loud. Every day, she shouted codes from every corner of the floor. But despite no longer taking her medication, her mind has never been so quiet, except for that one voice that now and then whispers, “Anak, I’m proud of you.”

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