*Note: This is part of the Nightmare Fuel series of prompts running on Google+. What follows is another attempt at a horror story. Read at your own risk.
Sarah shuffled toward the employee lot nestled in the back corner of one of the hospital’s oldest buildings. When she got to her car, she could cry, she told herself. For now, she had to appear strong. No one wanted to see a crying nurse, especially not near the emergency room. People had enough worries of their own. She tried to think of pleasant things, not the family of the young cancer patient gathered around his bed to say their goodbyes, not the elderly woman who gripped her husband’s liver-spotted hands and begged him not to leave her. Sarah especially tried not to think of the woman who had been in a tragic accident outside a local convenience store.
Sarah couldn’t get the images of the woman out of her mind. Sarah had seen terrible things before. She had seen burn victims and gunshot victims and what remained of the hand of the man who had held a firecracker as it exploded. This woman was an exaggerated version of all of them. No one could tell what had happened to her, or how she continued to survive the ordeal. Sarah had never seen anything like it. Nor had Doctor Parkins, from what Sarah could tell. It was the first time she had seen the man visibly shaken, and he’d spent thirty years of his life in that hospital emergency room.
It was Doctor Parkins’s expression that scared Sarah the most. In even the worst accidents, he kept a professional demeanor. He was the one that made lighthearted jokes and smiled warmly for even the most difficult patients. Nothing shook him. Nothing phased him. Until tonight.
Sarah tried not to think of it. She tried to think of happy things. Baxter would be waiting by the door for her, frantically wagging his tail and trying not to jump on her in his happiness. She looked forward to getting home and letting his affection overcome the day’s troubles.
An image of unrecognizable flesh screamed in Sarah’s mind. She saw the woman in her hospital bed, all tubes and wires, gauze covering what had once been a face. There should have been eyes and ears and softly blushed cheeks. Instead, there was a tangle of sinew and hair and burnt skin. Sarah wondered how long the woman might survive. In her heart, Sarah thought it would be a mercy if the poor woman passed on, but as a nurse she had to do everything in her power to keep the woman alive.
Sarah tried to shake the image from her mind. She looked around her, trying to regain reality. She was in the hospital lot. The city was around her. The air was cool and thick and with that odd combination of scents that identified an industrial district: burning oil and hot metal and mildewy plants.
Everything was as it should be. Except for an ATM standing a few feet away.
Sarah stopped mid step and looked at it, cocking her head to the side. Had there been an ATM here before? It was a dingy old thing, marked with rust and grease spots. It had a filthy piece of canvas draped over the top of it, for, Sarah assumed, a sun-screen. It looked like it had been standing for quite a while. Sarah thought it strange that she didn’t remember seeing it before.
Sarah kept walking.
“Spare some change for a war hero?” a voice asked.
Sarah spun around, expecting to see one of the numerous unshowered homeless men that prowled the premises. She was surprised to find Doctor Parkins taking long strides to catch up to her.
“Rough day, huh?” Parkins said. Sarah nodded. She tried not to think about the faceless woman’s tidy wool blazer and silk blouse, still tucked neatly into her skirt, even while the shoulders were burnt and exploded into tatters.
“Why don’t you let me take you out for a drink?” Parkins asked. He gave Sarah an awkward smile. If it was any other man, Sarah might think she was being hit on.
“I’m not sure what Mrs. Parkins would think of that,” Sarah said.
“I’ll invite her too. She’ll be thrilled that you asked.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket to make the call.
Sarah smiled. Baxter would have to wait a little longer tonight.
Another image flashed through her mind, this time of herself, still in scrubs, her face blown completely away. She shivered, and put her hand up to her face to verify she still had lips and a nose. She would have to talk to one of the trauma counselors if these terrible images kept popping up.
Doctor Parkins finished his call and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
“I’ll be just a minute,” he said. “The missus asked me to get cash.” He winked at Sarah and walked toward the ATM.
Sarah imagined the faceless woman at the convenience store, standing in front of an ATM, her hand outstretched to slide her card. The woman’s right arm had also been mutilated nearly beyond recognition. Sarah’s heart raced.
“Wait!” Sarah yelled. Parkins stopped, his fingers on the bottom of the canvas screen.
“Let’s use another machine,” she said.
“This is the closest one,” he said, and he started to lift the screen. Sarah imagined the doctor in a hospital bed, with the monitors slowly beeping, gauze covering his face, his wife and children surrounding his bedside and begging him to survive.
“Then let me go first,” Sarah said. “I… I need to get some cash too.”
The doctor let go of the dirty canvas and stepped aside with a polite smile. “After you, miss,” he said with a chivalrous gesture. Sarah managed a weak smile. She managed the steps it took to face the terrible machine. She managed to get hold of the rough canvas between her fingers. She looked back at the doctor. He was standing just behind her.
“Do you mind stepping a few feet away?” she asked. “I like my privacy.”
The doctor smiled and walked a few steps away, feigning interest in the ragged bushes that surrounded the parking lot.
Sarah stood in front of the machine. Her mind raced. She tried to tell herself that it was nothing to worry about. People used the machines hundreds of times a day. There was no evidence that the faceless woman in the hospital today had been using one. It was a simple cash machine. For all she knew, it had been here for years. There was nothing to be afraid of.
“Are you finished there?” Doctor Parkins asked.
“Just about,” Sarah answered.
She lifted the canvas screen. She heard a small click. She held her breath.
She breathed a sigh of relief and pulled her card out of her purse. As she fed her card into the machine, Sarah noticed that there was no computer screen on the ATM, only a gaping hole. As the light erupted from the blackness, Sarah hoped that someone would remember to feed Baxter.