”And finally, I must tell you that this year, the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.”
– Professor Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
As the night-shift nurses came on duty, Harry reached across the table and shoved a handful of cinnamon pita chips into his mouth. Then he reached for another handful. And another.
“Please, help yourself,” said a nurse named Elvendork, sliding the tray of hummus in Harry’s direction.
Harry swallowed the globule of starch at the back of his throat. His mouth was still dry, and translucent flakes of skin stuck to the back of his hand as he wiped his lips.
“Thanks, Elvendork,” said Harry, “but I should probably be heading to the patient intake office. I’m on call tonight.”
Elvendork glanced at the clock on the wall. “You’re right, you should get going. Have fun!”
Fun wasn’t exactly the word that came to mind as Harry mentally mapped out his route through the belly of the inner-city hospital to the depths of the inpatient psych unit. He swallowed another handful of chips, swung his laptop bag over his shoulder, and descended into the stairwell.
How can you describe the dusky hallways of a hospital after hours? Signs on the walls are as ambiguous as they ever were, and you stumble in the path of the arrows until you reach either a dead end, a unit closed for construction, or a deserted reception area. Motion-sensing fluorescent lights flicker on and off as you ponder which turns to take. The empty chairs and patient exam rooms taunt you as you swipe your badge to open one door after another, venturing deeper and deeper into catacombs of silence. And finally, when you accept that you’re in the wrong wing of the hospital altogether, you make a complete 360-degree turn and try to recall which of the five identical doorways you entered through several seconds ago. Not a voice, not a whisper, not a flushing toilet disrupts your solitude. You pull out your phone to text a coworker for help, and the lock screen spells out “No Service” in the upper left corner.
Flashback to six months ago
Harry was on his surgery clerkship, and he was late to the OR in an unfamiliar hospital. He tried taking a shortcut to the 2nd floor via an elevator hidden behind a barricade of vending machines.
Once on the second floor, Harry realized with an escalating feeling of dread that he had never seen this hallway before in his life. Unlike the other hallways in this hospital, this one was only a hundred feet long, with doors made of steel on either side. (It also reminded him of a prison he had seen on TV, but that wasn’t a unique characteristic, by any means.) Harry took a deep breath and turned back to the door through which he had just entered. It was locked. He tapped his ID badge against the panel on the wall, which only flashed red back at him.
Harry had no choice. He peered through the window in the door and waved frantically at a nursing assistant who was passing by.
“HELP! LET ME OUT! I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE! HELP!”
After some time, a housekeeping staff member took pity on Harry and escorted him to the nurses’ station of the adult inpatient psych unit.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the charge nurse, “but this unit is confidential. You’re not authorized to be here.”
“I promise I won’t come here ever again,” said Harry, clutching his chest. “Just let me out of here, please!” He would have dropped to his knees and begged if circumstances had called for it.
Harry arrived at the intake office of the psych unit 45 minutes late. As it turned out, the first floor was under construction, and the office had been relocated from the first floor to the seventh floor.
As Harry dropped his bag on the sofa, a shadowy figure came looming out of the gloom of the foyer. It stooped underneath the doorframe, lumbered past the coat rack, and collapsed in the office chair next to the window. Underneath its weight, the back of the chair slumped backward until it lay parallel to the linoleum floor.
“Sorry to keep yeh waitin’, bit of an int’restin’ circumstance downstairs, yer friend Ron is takin’ care of it for now.” Dr. Hagrid, the psychiatrist on call, smiled at Harry in between his labored breaths. “Are yeh ready?”
“Er – “ started Harry, but Dr. Hagrid had already commenced his speech.
“Now, listen carefully, ‘cause it’s dangerous what we’re gonna do tonight, and I don’ want yeh takin’ risks. First of all, always take the elevators, sometimes the psych patients manage ter escape from the locked unit, and no one will hear yeh scream in the stairwell. Second, don’ wear any scarves or lanyards ‘round yer neck, they can be used to choke yeh if yeh’re caught unawares. Even that – “ Dr. Hagrid pointed at Harry’s ID holder, which featured a retractable nylon cord for ease of badge-swiping – “can be easily yanked an’ wrapped around yer neck by an experienced patient, so yeh’re better off stickin’ it in yer pocket for safekeeping…”
Harry’s eyes drifted toward the windows, which were glazed over to insulate the psych unit from the outside world. He took a moment to question the predicament he had gotten himself into, and then he focused on the next tidbit from Dr. Hagrid’s arsenal of wisdom.