I hear the whirs and intermittent beeps of machinery before the light breaks through. My vision is skewed, my retinae aching. I try to blink through the blur, but it feels like I’m staring through frosted glass, just a few dim lights bobbing past like cars through the window.
      One of the lights draws closer. ‘Mr Thompson? Can you hear me?’
     My voice sticks in my throat. I swallow hard and force out a grunt. Shapes are forming, looming figures and sharp angles. The back of my head thumps.
     ‘Looks like you had a nasty fall,’ the voice continues. It’s a cheery voice, a woman’s, deep and rich with the hint of a foreign accent. ‘I’ll just have a quick look at your dressing, sweets. Turn this way for me.’
     My head is rolled to the side by a firm, cool hand below my ear. Her prodding has me wincing, so I concentrate on the television that’s slowly coming to life beside me as my vision alters.
     Not a television.
     A monitor, bearing a harsh green line that spikes in time to its beat.
     She lets go of my head. ‘You’re all good, hon’. Bleedin’ has stopped.’
     I let my neck slowly creak back round. My shoulder hurts, a burning ache like a torch beneath my armpit. I see her now, though her edges are distorted like I’m wearing the wrong prescription. She’s a portly woman, dark skinned and glowing under the surgical light. Her tight curls are partly covered by the scarf she wears, burnt shades of orange and yellow pinned close to her scalp. And hovering above her head, shimmering and shifting, is a number. A smooth oval, a zero, just hanging in the air like snow on a breezeless day.
      ‘What’s happening?’ My words form as barely a whisper.
     ‘You fell down the stairs, hon’. Don’t worry if you feel a bit foggy, it’s a normal symptom of concussion.’ She stands and adjusts the pillows beneath my neck, the 0 following closely above her. Her ample bosom, inches from my face, displays her name on an embossed tag. Nance. ‘There we are.’ She saunters away from me, her large thighs swaying beneath her scrubs.
     It’s only as she’s bending to tend to another patient that the rest of the room comes into focus. There’s another nurse and five more men on the ward, each in varying states of disarray, sleeping or staring about the room with wide, watery eyes.
     And all with glittering 0’s above their heads. I swallow back the lump that’s rising in my throat.
     All with 0’s. Except one. The old man in the corner. My skull constricts as though someone’s winding a clamp into my temples, tightening and tightening until the bones collapse. His 1 hums at me, pulls me in, pulsates like blood from a wound. His hair is almost as silver as his number, hanging to his shoulders in oily tendrils. His wiry chin is tucked into his chest and every now and then a small, throaty murmur escapes his wet lips. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t know.
     When a third nurse pushes through the swing doors, it’s not the 2 she bears that heightens the roaring in my ears – rather it’s the face that accompanies the number. Her skin is grey and drawn, the deep purple beneath her eyes a startling contrast. She keeps her gaze cast low, administering a tray of food to the closest tenant and scuttling out without a word. Upon her return with another tray, the two other nurses on the ward nudge each other.
     ‘Hope she’s not stashed any drugs in those sandwiches,’ one says, and Nance lets out a booming laugh, raspy and chesty.
     The girl’s eyes whip up. Her lip trembles. She stumbles to the next bed, clatters the tray onto the end table with a muttered apology, and runs to the door with her fingers already outstretched. I watch as she flees past the window, her hands covering her mouth, pallid cheeks reddening. Her 2 glares through the glass, sending scatters of light across my bed.
     And then the bile starts to rise, starting as an acidic burn surging in my chest. The IV in the crook of my elbow is yanked free as I lurch forward, vomit pooling in the sheet between my knees.
    Nance and the other assistant – Rebecca? Rowena? – clean me up promptly, inserting a new drip and changing the dressing on my head, fussing over me as if I’m a poorly child with his first sickness bug. All the while, their blinking 0’s remind me that roaming the halls somewhere is the 2, the sad and lonely 2 with a haunted face and inward exterior.
     ‘Just had a call from Biz down at reception,’ Nance clucks as she drapes fresh sheets over me. ‘Spoke to your Darcy, she should be up any minute.’
Darcy. Her olive skin and charcoal hair, her tired eyes and crooked teeth under full lips. Button nose and slender fingers. Breasts that salute the sun at her tender age of twenty-six.
     She bursts through the door, her dark fringe flying about her face. 1 in the corner jumps with a snort, but his eyes don’t open.
     ‘Oh, my God,’ comes her cry and she’s upon me, burying her face into my neck and holding me with an urgency that I haven’t experienced in months. I feel her quivering against me, deep sobs reverberating through my chest. She clings to my neck with such ferocity that the burn in my shoulder morphs into a roaring fire. As she pulls away, I’m confronted with a swollen, tear stained face and a fluorescent 9 lighting her crown.
     ‘They pumped your stomach, Will. They pumped your fucking stomach!’
     But I can barely hear her. There’s static in my ears. My vision is tunnelling. The pounding in my wound is fiercer than ever before, making my eyeballs throb. 9? I’m dreaming. I press the heels of my hands into my eyes and take a shuddering breath.
     ‘Numbers…’ I’m going crazy. I’m seeing things. I must be fucking crazy.
    ‘You’re alright, hon’. Take some deep breaths,’ I hear Nance call as she presses her chilly fingers against my forehead. ‘Don’t worry too much,’ she breathes, ‘it’s quite normal for concussion to make you feel confused. He’ll be right as rain soon enough. Lots of fluids and bed rest for you, Mr Thompson.’

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