Every day, the Central Hospital was packed with people, some sick, some injured, and some who were neither sick nor injured but pressing for their medical insurance claims. A place where people from all walks of life gathered, be it men or women, good or bad pedigree, the rich and the poor. Accident victims shouted at each other with curses at the tip of their tongues; cleaners mopped off the bloodstains left on the floor; nursing clerks busy with phone calls arranging appointments; little children run around and danced the visitors’ feet; doctors doing their rounds on the wards.
Even worse was the situation in the emergency room. ER was the place overrun by critical injury, where most of the time victims lost a limb or two, and medical personnel had to immediately stitch or cauterise wounds to save lives, albeit in crude ways. And just a moment ago, the ambulance had picked up another critical patient.
Trampling footsteps echoed in the hallway as the medical personnel wheeled off the patient who was put on a drip. The patient, a hoary old man, was tossing around in his bed, struggling in agony. Four strong medics had to keep him secure.
“What is his illness?” the doctor who was following behind asked.
“Cardiac arrest,” one of the ambulance personnel replied, “as reported by his six-year-old granddaughter.”
“I never had seen a heart patient so... worked up,” said the doctor, “It has to be other diseases, be it fits or allergy.”
“Or being possessed,” said the nurse.
“But it’s true that he’s having a very severe heart attack,” another said, “his heart is beating too fast, and his blood pressure is touching the 170 mark.”
“This is serious, put him in the ICU immediately.”
The medical officers rushed the patient to the ward, with much effort trying to keep him still. He was transferred to the intensive care unit seeing his dire condition, however, the doctors still did not know how to calm him down. “Put him on a restraining belt first, in case he is injured by a fall.”
Two hefty young paramedics came in with the belts to bind his arms and legs, but the old man put up with a struggle. His arms shook violently and they could not even hold their grip properly. And his legs kicked about in the air. “Hold him! I can’t believe an old man could have such strength against us!”
“This is very strange,” said the doctor, “we need a tranquiliser in this case, call the anaesthetist, somebody.”
The old man was still screaming and screeching, struggling with his might to break loose from his bonds. His skin glowed red, so were his dilated pupils. His eyes were filled with terror, and his mouth uttered indistinguishable syllables. And the medics around him were taken aback when they saw smoke arising from him. On closer inspection, the ends of his hair were singed, ready to catch fire anytime.
“What in the world....”
The doctor watched with fear at the old man’s fingers, which were lit by candle flames. At the same moment the anaesthetist came in with his syringe and tried to inject a pacifier drug into the patient. However, with a sudden convulsion the old man broke loose from his restraining belt and hit the needle away. He angrily punched the anaesthetist in the stomach, sending him crashing into the wall unconscious.
All hell broke loose in room 124. The fire on the old man’s fingers quickly spread to his hands and arms, finally torching his whole body. He was practically a human flame like the superhero in the comics. Screaming in pain and terror, the man jumped about hollering, scaring all the people out of the room. Black smoke engulfed him, and as the flames became too intense, he directed tiny shots of fireball from his hands all across the room, burning the curtains, mattress and ceiling paper.
And as the human fuel was burnt out, he laid charred black on the floor, void of body fluids, and the fire in his eyes died down, leaving two empty sockets.
Their work was disturbed abruptly by the government delivery service, carrying with them a huge container that looked like a coffin.
“Sign the consignment please,” said Eleanor.
Benjamin filled in the form, and the officers handed over the box. It was just out from the freezer, he knew as the chilly air emanating from the box made his shins tingle. “What is it?” he asked.
Eleanor flipped over the document that came with the consignment. “A dead body.”
Benjamin shuddered. “So we’re doing forensics now?”
“True it should be sent to the forensics department, but this corpse is special.”
He peered over the sheets of paper, and saw a huge ‘classified’ stamp across them.
“Yes,” said Eleanor, “the hospital gave the public report as ‘cardiac arrest’, but the FBI gave us an unsigned report stated as ‘mysterious death’. Surely this is a top secret matter the government wanted us to investigate.”
“Wow! Are we the X-Files now?”
“If you don’t mind, Ben, please open the box.”
There was a nauseating feeling about opening a coffin, after all, it was bad manners to be digging one’s grave. He cautiously undid the latch and bolts on the container, and then lifted the lid. Inside, there was a blackened pile of bones, arranged nicely in a human skeletal form. And when Eleanor poked at the skeleton with a scalpel, the charred bits of the bones crumbled into soot.
“There’s nothing we can investigate here, since the condition of our specimen is so poor, “said Eleanor, “This ought to go to the museum and be put bandages on it. The government should know better than to give us this type of specimen.”
“So what did our mummy got himself into? An inferno?”
“Well, the report says: pyro-manusitis.”
“A type of gangland brawl?”
“No, it’s a disease. And it is coined by the FBI; nowadays authorities can have little respect for the medical profession, simply coming up with a name like that.”
“What kind of disease?”
“Pyro means fire, and manusitis means hand-related disease. So it’s a fire-hand kind of disease, I suppose.”
“It doesn’t ring a bell, for me at least.”
“Well, let me read the story: apparently, this patient has been acting erratically since admittance into the ward, and his body caught fire afterwards. They have a reason to believe that the old man combusted himself from within because they alleged he can shoot fire from his hands.”
“The most incredible tale I’ve heard. It’s as if Satan possessed and immolated him.”
“Well, it’s not as if you believe in the devil. Or do you?”
“So, what do we do now?”
“Case is closed, for the time being. But watch out for recurring incidents like this, because it might contribute some data into our gene pool.”
Eleanor left the patient’s stack of files on the table and went out. Feeling curious, Ben picked them up and skimmed through, page by page. There were the long details of the incident on the first few pages, of which Eleanor had already explained to him, mostly accurate. The next few pages were the diagnoses of several doctors, all of which had concluded from their findings that there is no such case in the past. The documents moved on to even more interesting bits on some medical professionals’ hypotheses and speculations on the new disease. Some predicted that it was caused by a new type of virus which could induce the body to burn up excess heat; some said it could be the fragility of the skin tissues that caused them to combust even at the slightest hike in temperature; some even suggested that the patient had a mutated gene that took on the traits of a firefly, which was clearly nonsensical; while the rest, who could not tolerate new ideas and rather stick to tradition, concluded that the old man hid a lighter under his shirt and burnt himself as an act of suicide, and thus suggested the case be referred to the psychological department.
Benjamin found it hard to contain his laughter upon reading all those crazy, unbelievable theories, and wondered if new-age scientists had really gone mad. His chuckles trailed off as he turned to the next page, which were largely on the patient’s personal information and medical history. There was a photograph of the old man attached on the records, which looked creepily familiar. The records read: Name: Roger H. McCarthy, Age: 70; Address: 18F, Torrington Lane, South Avenue 43359; Last Occupation: CERN Laboratory Janitor.
He was shocked. No wonder the picture looked so familiar. Uncle Roger, the person who emptied his rubbish bin everyday without fail, and cleaned the toilets in the facility. Uncle Roger would wave friendlily when he walked past the corridors, always as kind as he was. Could he be one of the victims of the CERN tragedy who miraculously survived? Could he had his genes altered by the radiation, and that his disease was the aftermath?
The questions haunted him for the whole morning, even as he went for lunch break.