Jan/Feb 2023  •   Fiction

Code 3

by Will Richter

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Technically, by rotation, Jim should be first on wheel, but you have to have a little mercy when it's still dark outside and a guy's wearing wraparound shades, when he's sucking back coffee like it's going to save his life.

"Appreciate it, darlin'," he says, and that's okay, too, because he slots into that hole my father left behind, because he's never crossed the line like a lot of the other paramedics, because we're partners and it's just okay, sometimes, little wrong words like that. And anyway, it's too early to argue.

Then the first call comes.

The dash monitor beeps, lights up. Code 3, it says. Chest pains, labored breathing, Tower 38.


With a Code 3 I could run the siren, wake the neighborhood. But why bother? At this hour there's no traffic, just shapes in doorways, a pole with a guy hanging off of it, thumbing down the taxis of his mind.

Tower 38—one of the older towers, the windows pitted from sandstorms. A bald super squints out from an unlit foyer, lets us in. "Heard the wailing and had to use my key," he says. "Found him flat out. The kitchen. Here, gotta take the stairs. The elevator's broke."

I don't want to think about broken elevators. Please, god, not that. Better to pitch the patient off the balcony, hope for the best. Maybe he'll fly like Dumbo, flap his ears and sail away, head north into virgin territory, someplace fresh and well-watered and life-giving. So someplace made up. But then we're opening the door and it's no Dumbo lying there. This one's got emaciated legs and countable ribs and a feeble groping snout. No, this guy you've gotta look twice just to make sure he's even an elephant.

Jim's still useless, so I'm on lead, kneeling by the big grey mound, starting my checks. Turns out the pain's in his stomach, not his heart. Pulse fine, breathing weak but steady, no other pain anywhere. So far, so good.

"How long have you been lying here, sir?" I say.

He taps his snout on the floor three times.

"Three hours?"

Shakes his head, sighs, taps again.

"Three days?"

He nods. That's it. His expression doesn't change, like, So what? Three days lying here, tell me one good reason I should give a shit.

We sit him up, fill the sink with a water ration and electrolytes, help him drink. That's the easy part. Jim's unscrambled himself enough to give the kitchen a once-over. No food. Not a blade of grass, a leaf. Nothing.

"I'll run down," I say, and Jim nods, takes off his shades for the first time, showing the hot pink hopelessness underneath. Then I'm down and up the stairs, legs pumping, emergency food packet slapping against my back. "Here," I say to the super, who's still skulking around. "Help me spread this over the floor." He takes the packet, squints at it for too long, does as he's told.

While the elephant's eating, I thumb my tablet, start filling out a form.

"It's an application for more like this." I indicate the feed. "A new federal program. Not much, but it'll keep you from starving."

At least theoretically. At least until the program terminates like all the others.

We hang around until he's recovered a bit, give him a pat on the back, see him onto his feet. Just a little pygmy elephant. But still, we're lucky. Those stairs.


"Chalk that last one up as a win, eh, Chloe?" says Jim.

"I guess so."

"Gotta take them where you can, kiddo."

He's stuffing a Big Mac into his face, speaking around the edges, and this medicine seems to work better than the coffee. Or in any case he's looking more like himself, which is to say more like a retired hockey player gone to seed. Not that he ever played hockey—he's just got that ginger way of moving around, that air of know-nothing self-satisfaction common to sportsmen.

"You think the super was on the level?" I say.

"What you mean?"

"Some guys take those packets and sell them."

"True. True." He thinks. "Yeah, that guy, he was on the level."

"You sure?"


"How are you sure?"

He finishes the burger, crumples the wrapper, tosses it out the window, and picks his teeth with his tongue.

"Kiddo," he says, "the thing is, there's nothing we can do about it anyway."


Elderly female, the screen says. Gorilla.

"I always like the little old ladies," says Jim. And he does. Brings out the best in him. He's on lead this time, and he checks her vitals tenderly, working up a bit of patter, trying to coax a laugh. Doesn't get it. Her face is like a rubber gorilla mask if one of those masks wanted to kill you.

"Let me try," I murmur as Jim's rifling his kit, and he shrugs, backs off, doesn't care. With me she's not exactly friendly, but at least she glares less. Maybe she doesn't like men. Well, she's got good company. I check the name on her Medi-Alert: Constance. Okay, Constance, let's see what we've got. Visual inspection: a grey, weak old gorilla in a housecoat; a soiled mattress; a tiny room stinking of dung. Jim tries the window, but no luck. There's a jungle poster on the wall above the mattress, and as I take the pressure she keeps glancing that way, as if to keep an eye on things, and I wonder if she's gone dotty. No, no danger from that direction, ma'am. No predators to worry about anymore. No jungles, either.

The pulse is elevated, jumpy.

"Do you feel any pain?" I ask, and she nods once, dignified and resentful, touching her head and arms. "Can you walk? Move around?" Shakes her head. "Dizziness?" Nods. Jim and I exchange a glance.

"Can you smile for us, ma'am?" asks Jim, and she glares again.

"It's for medical reasons," I explain, but I don't know if she understands. She looks at the poster. "How about raising your arms? Can you give that a try?"

At first I think she's ignoring me, but then I hear her quiet grunt, see her neck muscles bulge. The arms don't lift, though.

"Ma'am," I say, "I can't be sure, but I think you may have had a stroke. We're going to take you up to Noah's, do some checks, get you feeling better, okay? We'll take good care of you."

She turns to me, looks me right in the eyes. Her big lips part, air hissing in and out. A laugh.

But what'd I say that was funny?


"Geez, this is our morning," says Jim, steering alertly. We left Constance, stooped and sullen, in a wheelchair at the hospital. She watched us until we turned the corner, a look like bullets between my shoulder blades. I squirm in my seat, still feeling them.

"Two easy ones," Jim goes on. "Nobody dead."

"Not yet."

"Ha ha. That's the spirit."

The sun's up, the streets traffic-jammed, the glass towers brown and spooky in the dust and smoke. Jim exhales, whistles, pats his hands on the wheel, hitting his mid-morning peak. He says, "You know what I think—"

Bang! Bang! Bang!

"Jesus fuck," says Jim. Gunshots. The crowd on the sidewalk goes frothy, everybody churning in one direction. Then there's sirens, Police, Fire, the monitor beeping. A tiger, Code 3.

"Just a block away," I say, and Jim punches the siren, the human wave parting to receive us.

One squad car's already on scene, another pulling up as we arrive. The tiger lies on the sidewalk outside a restaurant selling steam buns, a Chinese guy in an apron standing to one side with a rifle, a cop next to him. I grab my kit and go, and there's the blood. For a cook the guy's a pretty good shot. Got him twice, neck and shoulder. The neck's the problem one, right in the femoral. Blood burbles up with each breath, but at least he's still breathing, still alive.

"Etorphine," I say, and Jim passes it over, grips paws as I slide the needle. The tiger kicks weakly, but it doesn't take long, that stuff, and then he's out cold and we can get to it. I grab the compressions, shove them in there, push with all I've got, but that femoral's a real gusher. Jim's right beside me, pushing on the secondary, and that'd be okay if only my bleed would stop, if only it would quit bubbling up around the bandages, getting all over my hands, my legs, the sidewalk. This is my first tiger. I look at the muscles, the stripes, the teeth. Jesus. But that blood won't stop.

"Here," says Jim. "Here, here." He's pushing me aside, getting his knee in there, but it's no better, no help at all. I check the pulse and there isn't one. What we've got here is a dead cat.

Another paramedic's on scene now, a specialist. Too late for that. Too late for everything except gunning for that apron guy. What I'm gonna do when I get there I don't know. Commit a crime, get locked up, something of that nature. But then Jim's on my arm, pushing me in another direction, and the cop's partner's there, too, speaking in a calm, quiet voice. Everybody's calm, and I haven't raised my voice, either, haven't lost it, just thought about crimes without committing them, so I say, "You going to arrest him or what?"

And the partner says, "We're investigating."

"Well," I say, "there's the dead tiger, and there's the guy who shot him."

"We'll have to see," says the partner. "It's a busy area."

And that's true. People coming and going in all directions again, some of them taking a quick peek before moving on. The kind of area where you can't have tigers running around. And if every area's a busy one, well, then I guess you can't have tigers.


I change my scrubs, scour my hands in the ambulance sink. I wore gloves, sure, but it's psychological, blood like that.

"You know what I've got a hankering for?" says Jim. We're back in the seats, the wheel in front of me.

"Don't fucking tell me."

"You guessed it."

"I just... I don't know."

"What's your pleasure?" he says. "Barbecue pork, or spicy beef?"

We go to the usual place, a sidewalk vendor, but after one bite I can't bite any more.

Jim blows on his steam bun, watches me. "You still thinking about that tiger?" he says, and I shake my head.

"The gorilla."

"The gorilla?"



He bites, chews, looks out the window, turns back.

"Hey," he says, "you ever hear from that Cortes guy anymore?"

"Why would I?"

"Jesus, I don't know. Just trying to change the subject. Eat your lunch."

Cortes—a tall, mild face looking over the edge of a book. No, haven't heard from him, haven't thought about him. He wanted kids, and I said no, what's the point? That same conversation again and again. Just a gentle guy with gentle manners, the kind of guy who'll feel bad about all the right things, then have a bunch of kids with no room left to raise them, no room even to bury them.

I try another bite, but that one's no better than the first. I look at the monitor, wait for the beep.


These things go in streaks, Jim says, and this time he's right. The tiger, shot; a penguin, asphyxiated; a bear, just gone, taken for meat; some bees, who the fuck knows? Spread some mushrooms around, hope for the best. Jim's wilting, sweating, snapping, and I am, too. We ferry them up to Noah's. A white southern rhino with subcu bleeding and yellow eyes, an Arctic fox lying there like carrion. Ferry them up, leave them, know they're not coming back. Could be an ambulance we're driving, could be a hearse. We trudge down the halls, tower after tower, passing the doors, the rooms. And how many are empty? More every day. Ghost towers.

It's almost dark when we get the kicker call. Tower 3. Aquatics.

"Jesus," says Jim. "Really?" And I know how he feels, but there's nothing we can do except put on the suits, the masks, the tanks, the flippers. We're opening the hatch and dropping in, and there she is, floating at the far end of the tank.

Beluga whale.

I know this whale, got a call a few weeks ago. She acted weird, lethargic, kept her distance at first, but then she swam close and I gave her a pat, and then she came around for another go, another pat, again and again. She nuzzled my hand like a horse, like a trick dolphin trying to toss a ball into the air. It felt like helping, like I was accomplishing something.

The whale skims the top of the little room, up in the air gap, her belly tilted to the ceiling. She bumps a wall. I grip her tail, give a push, and she drifts, spinning clockwise until she bumps again. Jim taps my arm, shakes his head, climbs the ladder out of the hatch, but I don't follow. I just float there, drifting with the whale.


"I need something," I say. "Anything. Anything you've got."

"I don't know, kiddo," says Jim. "Not sure if that's a good idea."

"I know you're holding. You're always holding."

"Not always," he says, offended, and I have to apologize, talk him down, play my role. In this version he's the cheerful wiseacre bachelor/partner/uncle punching hours until his pension, and I'm the earnest stressed-out sidekick in over my head. Whatever. Give me the drugs.

He shakes out two pills, pops one himself, hands me the other.

"Go time," he says, and just like that, or maybe later, I don't know, the monitor's beeping and we look and can't believe it, the coincidence, and I watch the crowds sweeping by and Tower 38 getting bigger and the super answering the door, a greased smudge wiping his nose and pushing back what's left of his hair and saying, "You again?" And I say, "Yeah, us again. Didn't expect us, did you? Thought you'd run your little scam and no one's the wiser. Isn't that right?" And he says, "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about," and Jim's holding me back, the second time today, but it's harder now, his face already pink getting pinker, and the super's saying, "Fuck you, then, fuck you," disappearing down the hall, and Jim's telling me to breathe, just breathe, maybe this wasn't such a good idea, and I say I don't know, I don't know what's a good idea anymore, but let's go check on that elephant.

Jim knocks, gets no answer, and then we're pushing in, and there he is. Visual inspection: a sick starving elephant by a window, breathing heavy and looking our way.

"Hello again, sir," says Jim, and the elephant doesn't move, twitch, emote. The food's gone from the floor, every speck, and the water, too, all gone, just this hungry elephant left in the room, looking at us without moving.

"Something's weird. I don't like this," says Jim, keeping it low. And that makes me mad: Jim getting scared of a harmless animal; Jim caring about nothing and punching the clock and going home to a room a lot like this one; Jim watching TV, polishing another bottle, passing out, getting up, doing it all again.

"We're here to help you," I say, and I step forward, lifting another bag of the good stuff, another emergency round on the government dime. The elephant still doesn't move, like he's some kind of wax animal, like he's already extinct and all of this is just for educational purposes, something for the kids. But no, he's breathing, breathing fast, his ribs jerking, and Jim's saying, "Hon, hon, don't," and before I can tell him to stop talking like that, the elephant charges.

You only get a second with a charging elephant, and in that second something knocks me from behind and I tilt, hit my head on a counter, go down, a big round paw whacking my leg but not crushing it somehow, and I hear a scream and look up and see Jim pinned to a wall, the elephant grinding him back and forth, as if to make a nice mash, and Jim's trying to hit back, fight back, but it's no use, not even with a little starving pygmy elephant. I don't think, but the tranq's in my hand anyway, jabbing into a big grey rump. Toss that, get another, jab that, too. And the floppy ears are turning my way, Jim slipping to the floor. The elephant wobbles forward, and I retreat. Wobble, retreat. Those legs are weak. A push is all it takes, and the body drops, wheezing, moaning, and I'm on Jim, cutting his shirt open, finding where the ribs stick out of his skin and telling myself this is all going to be okay, this is what I'm trained for. This is my job.

I find the super in the hallway, one hand on his neck, the other on the top of his head.

"You have to help me," I say. "It's Jim. Jim's hurt." And he nods, almost crying, does as he's told, gets that stretcher up the stairs and Jim onto it. There's nobody else to help, but he's a good soldier, that super. He really comes through. "I'm sorry," I say to him. "I'm so sorry."

And Jim keeps mumbling, "It's all right, hon. Everything's all right." All the way down the stairs he's mumbling it.


A nurse wakes me. He's buff, smiling like an ad for prophylactics, says my friend can see me now. I look at the clock and can't reckon the hour, can't reckon any of this. I go to the bathroom, vomit, splash my face, get a mint from the vending machine.

"See?" says Jim. "Everything's fine."

He's wrapped tight, can't breathe without wincing, but otherwise looks like Jim. His smile falters. "The only thing is," he says, "I had to tell them about... you know."

"I know. Of course."

"That's on me, though, not you. I kept you out of it. Maybe it doesn't matter anyway." He lowers his voice. "Half the people in here. You know. Wasted on something."


I look at the tubes, the bags, the monitors.

"Don't feel bad," he says. "None of this is your fault. Remember what we're dealing with, kiddo."


"Wild animals."

I sit in the chair next to the bed, put my face in my hands. He gives me a second, then says, "So I guess he's..."

"Destroyed? Yeah. I put the call in."

He sighs, clicks his tongue on the roof of his mouth. I wipe my eyes.

"No, hey, no, look." He takes my hand. "Don't do that. No. Not that."



"I'm not doing anything."

He looks at me. "Darlin'," he says, "the thing is, you can't take all of this so seriously."


I ought to take the wagon back to the station, mop up Jim's blood. Instead I go driving. This is the best time, one of the only quiet times. I used to work graveyards, back before Jim. Maybe I should again. Or maybe I should give it all up, call Cortes, get married, look at each other over book edges, have kids, move into one of those ghost towers, squeeze in one more generation, maybe two.

I'm driving without thinking, and where I end up is where habit takes me. Noah's.

I sit there for a while, get out, go inside. Why not?

"Hey Patty," I say. "How are you?"

"You know," she says. "I am."

"I'm just checking on a patient I brought in here earlier. Gorilla. Name's Constance. She still here?"

She checks the file. "You're in luck," she says. "Should have been put down by now, but they're running late tonight."

"So she got worse?"

"Well," she says, "she didn't get better."

I find Constance in a room full of empty cages, her door hanging open. She's out cold, her big lips parted, dry. No laughing anymore.

"Oh, sorry. Didn't see you in here."

I turn, see a middle-aged guy in scrubs and a cap.

"It's all right," I say. "I just brought her in this morning, wanted to check on her."

He moves closer, puts a hand on Constance's head.

"We try to spare them as much pain as we can," he says.

"I know."

"Would you like to stay? You're welcome."

The cage is mounted with a rolling slab like you see in a morgue, and he rolls her out, prepares the syringe. I take her hand.

"Well," says the man. "Here goes."

He slides the needle into her arm, ducks his eyes, leaves. And I do all I can, all I can do for any of them. I stay there beside her, holding her hand while she dies.