4 min read

A Hint of Sulfur

Let’s take a nice stroll toward the precipice of the afterworld.

Previously: The sisters are rude to an old barber for no reason, then deliver a rude inheritance to a guy who keeps a key in a weird place on his body.

— 33 —

Last job of the day is at Gentle Pines. Neither Bat nor Mina have ever been there before, which is good because Gentle Pines is where people go to die. It’s a medical facility way up in a remote part of the Palaces, nestled in the woods, with a sweeping view of the entire town and the ocean beyond. They say it’s a comforting sight to gaze upon in one’s final days.

It’s centered around a hydrothermal spring and used to be a sanatorium, like one of those old mineral spas where they’d treat women suffering from tuberculosis or “hysteria,” though the clientele here mostly consisted of old admirals who’d seen things during their stints and wanted to retire someplace where they could keep an eye on the sea without being too close to it.

Gentle Pines was eventually annexed to the Hook County hospital network and became the place they sent monied and terminal patients. There’s still a gondola that runs from sea level up to the spa, and that’s what the sisters take to get there. It slowly climbs hundreds of feet through the trees, boughs scratching against the windows, feeling rickety in a way that’s exciting. They love it. Well, they love it until they notice the various emergency medical devices stowed under the seats and remember where they’re going.

The single-story building is unusually smooth and unadorned for Fort Hook. It looks as if Nature is trying to infiltrate it, what with the ferns creeping into the door jambs, the moss carpeting the windowsills. It smells damp and loamy, with a hint of sulfur. It strikes Bat as disgustingly fertile, even as death circles its heart.

She would like to leave as soon as possible.

They’re greeted by a steward named Ata, wheeling a small cart covered in a starched tablecloth. He seems kindly, and humble, clad in institutional white. Mina goes through her satchel and finds the item they were asked to deliver by an anonymous client: a local newspaper from a town far from here, one Bat’s never heard of. It’s dated a few weeks ago, filled with old news.

Ata nods, pleased, grateful. He escorts them through a series of corridors, making a quick stop in a kitchen to pick up a heavy crystal carafe filled with ice water.

Then they emerge into a long, high-ceiling’d room with a row of beds, each draped in mosquito netting, rendering their occupants as soft silhouettes. It’s quiet except for very subtle and troubling sounds: a raspy sigh, a gurgle, a steady drip of liquid, a hiss of a ventilator.

Bat stops at the entryway, not wanting to go in, fighting the urge to peel out in the opposite direction. She is far more comfortable with a sudden, quick, violent death than one that lingers, slowly eating away at the essence of a person, for days or months or years.

Ata quietly explains that he brings each patient a special gift from time to time. They can request whatever they’d like, something small but meaningful that he can procure for them without too much hassle. And today is delivery day.

He wheels the cart over to the nearest bed, folds back the tablecloth to reveal a truly random assortment of items. He picks up a plate of sausage patties and places it on the nightstand, then moves on to the next bed. That one gets the ice water. The patient parts the mosquito net and eagerly reaches for the carafe. She greets Ata like he just materialized in the middle of the desert, and lustily drinks the water.

Then he takes the newspaper, unfolds it, hands it to an old man. The old man snaps it open, quickly flips to the box scores, and curses.

Bat and Mina nod at each other. Job’s done. Let’s go.

But Ata beckons them to keep following him. He delivers a pomegranate with its top sliced off. A tiny bottle of ear drops. A shot of black pepper vodka. Then a record by some combo called The Ralphs. There’s no way to play the record, just the album itself, but that seems good enough for the patient. She runs her thumb along the edge of the vinyl and closes her eyes, listening.

At the second to last bed, Ata hands a weathered photograph to a blind woman who Bat finds disturbingly young. She turns it over in her hands, brow furrowed, then seems to realize what it is. She smiles at Ata, tears streaming down her face.

Ata pushes his cart, now empty, next to a doorway leading into a room that Bat just knows is somewhere you don’t come back from. He walks silently to the final bed. He takes a pen and pad of paper from his coat pocket and places them on the bedside table. He leans close to the motionless silhouette behind the netting and whispers: Anything, Ma. Anything at all.

He waits a moment but there’s no response. He gets up, turns to Bat and Mina, smiles, and gestures for them to follow him back to the entrance.


This has been Chapter 33 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.

Next up: The Dandy Gorgon