The door gave a tiny click as the latch disengaged. Whispering against the tiles, it slowly opened until the gap was large enough to allow a single, very small, red-shirted gnome to slip into the room. Holding his faded, green hat pressed to his chest, the gnome eased the door shut behind him, hunching his shoulders as the latch clicked again. For a few seconds his large, liquid gray eyes stared at the big hospital bed and its rasping occupant. Taking a nasal breath he exhaled slow and silent through pursed lips, then took a halting step forward. Watching the bed, he took another step, and then a third, each time freezing in place after setting the soft sole of his weathered, brown boot upon the checkered floor tiles. When the center tuft of his yellow hair was even with the middle of the bed, he stilled himself and waited.
Outside the room’s single window, long stemmed purple and pink tulips waved slowly back and forth, their blooms seeming to sing on a gentle spring breeze. Turning his head slightly, the gnome frowned at the flowers and jutted his bottom teeth forward, bugging his eyes at the same time. The tulips became still. Looking back up at the bed he took another silent breath and glanced at the clock on the wall above the door. Twelve minutes had passed.
“Don’t count your records just yet.” The voice was frail, but harsh, like the speaker had just inhaled a strong toke of merryweed and had yet to cough. The gnome closed his eyes until they nearly disappeared inside the crinkles of his skin and sighed.
“When did you hear me?”
“Before you opened the door.” The bed creaked as its occupant shifted and groaned. “Red is a distinctly loud color.”
The gnome looked down at his shirt in surprise. “I thought about wearing the blue one today but every time I do the Garden gnomes want to sit with me in the cafeteria.” He shrugged his small, bulky shoulders. “At least it wasn’t the flowers. If you had said the tulips I would have sliced off their tattle-tail heads before I left.”
The bed’s occupant chuckled. “Well, they certainly didn’t help.”
“I knew it!” Turning to the window, the gnome shook a fist at the flowers. “You lot are going into Granny Fole’s next pot of home-brew!” The tulips began waving deeply back and forth, bumping into each other as one pink one waved counter to the others. The gnome stared at the offender and snorted. “Except for you. You’ll probably make the brew taste like gopher piss.” All the tulips promptly collided as they changed the direction of their wave.
The bed’s occupant jerked violently into a fetal position and heavy coughing exploded from him. Whipping his head around the gnome let his hat fall to the floor as he vaulted for the top of the bed.
“Easy Tink! Take it slow, buddy.” He pressed both hands against Tink’s long, bony spine and golden light sponged outward from his fingers. Tink’s coughing eased and he uncurled himself, his long frame stretching out again to cover the full length of the bed. “Better?” the gnome asked. Tink nodded. The gnome looked thoughtfully at the disarrayed bed, then turned around and sat boldly down on Tink’s jutting hip bone. Still breathing heavily, Tink lifted his head a fraction and fixed his eye-holes on him.
“Do you mind, Sammy?”
Waving away the question the gnome crossed his feet comfortably. “I have a surprise for you.” His expression opened in anticipation and he grinned. “Ask me what it is.”
Dropping his head back onto the pillow, Tink inhaled raggedly. “If it’s a visit from another pamphlet vendor, I’m not interested.”
“Ha! Not even close.” Sammy poked Tink’s rib bone through the sheet. “Guess again.”
“I’m really not in the mood for games.”
“Aw, c’mon, Tink. I think you’re going to like this one.” Sammy’s grin stretched into a full-on smile of happiness. Tink sighed.
“Fine, if it will help you get through your day,” he rasped. “Could you at least sit more on my thigh though? I’ve been sleeping on that hip all night and it’s feeling like it could shatter at any moment. Thanks,” he said as Sammy scooched over a bit. “Now tell me your surprise.”
“No, you have to guess.” The gnome wiggled a little, his fingers clawing the air excitedly.
“Ugh! Okay– The Reapers need a fourth for their holiday cribbage game?” Sammy’s smile melted into surprise, and he stared at Tink with his jaw tilting open. Raising his head Tink stared back. “What? Really? That’s the surprise?” Very slowly Sammy nodded.
“No, that’s not it. But you’re really close.”
Tink flopped back on the pillow. “Eat a Willow Sprite,” the skeleton growled and raised a single, middle phalange.
“Willow Sprites taste like hair,” the gnome laughed.
“Why am I not surprised that you know that?”
Sammy crossed his feet the other way and patted Tink on the hip again. “I’ll just tell you. You’re close because it really is the Reapers, but it’s not the cribbage game.” He bounced his thick eyebrows playfully as Tink again raised his head.
“What?” Leaning forward, Sammy beamed at him.
“The Reapers are down a man and have an opening. They want you to fill it.” Tink shook his head.
“That doesn’t make sense. How are the Reapers down a man? They’re… Reapers.”
“I know, right?” Sammy hopped to his feet and started River Dancing on the sheet, making Tink groan. Stopping, the gnome pointed sternly at him. “You have been laying in this bed for two years. It’s high time you got back to work.” Rolling rudely onto his side Tink put his back to Sammy.
“I was nearly vaporized,” he wheezed as the gnome hopped over him, missed the edge of the bed and fell to the with a screech.
“Nearly,” Sammy squawked from the floor. “But not!” The bed began to shudder and clank, making Tink sit up fully in alarm.
“What are you doing?” A few thumps followed by the sound of dragging came from below. “Sammy! Stop!” The gnome reappeared from the other side of the bed, his green hat now on his head, and he pushed a long, dusty, gray box onto the top of the bed.
“You feel like crap because you lay in bed all day and don’t do anything.” Scrabbling up beside the box, Sammy scowled at him. “There’s nothing wrong with you anymore.” Raising both hands to the ceiling he tipped his head back and loudly proclaimed “YOU ARE HEALED!” Then he kicked the box into Tink’s hip, making him wince. “Now put on your damn cloak, you’ve been discharged.”