A short, fictional story about a personal and national tragedy, normalcy bias, and how to overcome insurmountable obstacles.
The morning sun’s orange rays hit the glistening buildings of the corporate park adjacent to Dr. Daniel Addler’s family practice. As his piano black luxury sedan pulled into the parking lot, he felt his chest swell with gratitude and joy. It was a strange feeling, permeating his soul and enveloping him in a warm blanket of love for his life.
He wasn’t sure what prompted it. He supposed the proximity of the Thanksgiving holiday had something to do with it. His children had been tracing their hands with crayons this morning as he had left the house. As they constructed turkeys out of construction paper and made black pilgrim hats out of pieces of felt, they had happily wished him a good day at work before he headed out the door.
Still strangely euphoric, he strode toward the side door of the practice after navigating through a parking lot already filling up with cars. When he reached the side door, though, it wouldn’t open. He tried his combination three times before giving up and going around to the front. There was obviously a problem with the keypad. He would speak to the office manager later to let her know.
“Morning, Dr. Addler,” one of the nurses greeted him immediately. Several of his patients waved—people he had known for years. And before Dr. Jones retired, they had been his patient here, as well. This office was their home almost as much as it was his.
“Morning, Kari,” he said pleasantly as he made his way through the waiting room and into the back. He was greeted several more times by the other nurses in the practice before he arrived at his office, and put his bag down. He retrieved his stethoscope and swung it around his neck, grabbed his tablet, and headed out to the hall.
“Fiona,” he smiled to his nurse who already stood at her post in the hallway. She was looking at her tablet, making notes with her stylus. “What’ve we got today?”
“First patient is already in the room. Megan Yuri—“
“Ah, Megan. What’s going on with Megan today?” He knew her well. Her husband and he played golf together and went to baseball games. Their children and Daniel’s attended the same private school. Megan’s husband was a successful tax attorney.
“She complains of nasal congestion and a sinus headache for ten days. Her vitals are normal. Yellow nasal drainage for six of the ten days, and a non-productive cough since yesterday. She hasn’t experienced a fever, nausea, or vomiting; no changes to appetite or GI symptoms.”
Daniel nodded and made a note in his tablet. “I’ll see her first. Hey, do we have our med student here yet?”
“No, he’s not here. I’m not sure where he is.”
“Hm,” the doctor frowned. “Well…it’s his grade. Hey, if you get a chance, could you mention to the front desk that I need to speak with Julia about the keypad outside? It’s not working.”
“I know, I had to go in the front door this morning, too. I’ll get her to come down.”
“Thanks,” he said before knocking on the exam room door, and entering.
After a day of treating minor ailments, Daniel completed his fifteen minute commute home in relatively little traffic. The house was a veritable fortress—made of stone with narrow windows, it was immaculately decorated both inside and out.
He pulled onto the wireless charge pad in his garage, and noticed his wife’s car was not there. “Hm,” he said aloud, and wondered if she was home. Usually, when he rolled in at about 6 pm, she was making dinner. When he entered the house, the security alarm beeped to announce his presence and he called, “I’m home, is anyone here?”
“Daddy!” little Virginia ran up to him. His 4-year-old daughter had a smudge of marker on her cheek. She beamed with joy at seeing him and wrapped her arms around his leg. “I missed you, Daddy.”
“I missed you too, sweetie,” he said, and lifted her up in his arms as soon as he put his bag down. “Where’s Mommy?”
“With Calvin and Fox in the basement. They’re getting food storage,” she said knowingly.
“Ah, well, let’s go down there and say hi,” he responded, and carried his daughter to the stairwell around the corner. They went down a curved staircase to enter a long, concrete corridor, and then turned left into a small room. It looked like a coat closet, but a storage chest along the back wall was moved out of the way, exposing a trap door. He put Virginia down and said, “You wait here.”
He descended the sharply inclined staircase, holding the railings as he went. “Hello down here!”
“Dad!” his seven-year-old called, and ran up to the staircase. Fox, their lab/pit bull mix, also ran up to him to lick him and greet him with an enthusiastic bark. Calvin explained, “Mom’s trying to get the potato pearls out of the big bin.”
“We need to eat this food storage,” his wife’s strained voice declared from around a corner. Daniel strode through the family-room-style sub-basement, complete with a couch and large screen, computers, and kitchenette. He entered the pantry, which was stacked from floor to ceiling with food storage. “Why did you put the potato pearls in this bin?” she asked him as she struggled to remove the plastic bin from the top shelf while balancing on a ladder.
“Get down from there, you’re going to kill yourself,” he told her. “I don’t remember why we put the potato pearls in a bin…I think we thought we were organizing.”
“Well now they’re wedged into that shelf,” she said as she descended the pantry ladder, “and I can’t get it out.”
“I’ll give it a shot. We may need to take some things off the shelf above it to wriggle the bin out,” he suggested. He gave her a quick kiss when she was on level ground again, and then ascended the ladder, himself.
In another few moments, he had freed the bin from its constraints and extracted potato pearls for dinner. “What else are we having?” he asked her.
“Work was insane today, so I didn’t have time to make anything good. It’s potato pearls and ham from the freezer, with canned peas.”
“It’ll be fine,” he accepted with a smile. As they ascended the ladder out of their subbasement, he asked, “Where’s your car?”
“Oh, I had to have them tow it. I was going to go out today to get some steaks to grill for this weekend but the car wouldn’t start. So that took two hours out of my day.”
“Any word from the shop as to what’s wrong?” he asked. Virginia hugged him again when he emerged into the basement, and as soon as Fox was up the ladder, Daniel turned off the light, closed the trap door, and replaced the chest. They all headed out of the basement.
“I haven’t heard anything from them. But also, my phone is acting a little strange. I can’t get a signal half the time.”
“Hm,” he said, but didn’t bother to check his own to see if he was having the same issue.
Dinner was uneventful, except for an almost-temper-tantrum, courtesy of a relatively exhausted little four-year-old. He tucked her into bed right after dinner, and then Calvin asked him if he would read him more of the Picture Scripture Book, which was their new bedtime ritual.
As he sat on the couch of their gorgeous living room, facing the enormous stone fireplace with a warm, crackling fire, Daniel was again almost overwhelmed with the same euphoric feeling he had experienced this morning, driving to work. He thought it strange, but could not help but revel in the joy of having such a perfect life. With his son’s small frame tucked beside him, his wife listening from a lounge chair not far away, his little daughter safely snuggling with her stuffed animals in her bed, he counted himself the richest man in the world.
The next day, Daniel repeated his morning routine. He stepped onto the scale in his bathroom to reveal that he had lost five pounds. Triumphant over this accomplishment, he told his wife that his diet was working. He drove to work through little traffic, and tried the side door again. The keypad was still broken, he noted with minor annoyance, and so he entered through the front.
He waved to a sad-looking little boy held in his mother’s arms. He had never seen the child before, and he didn’t look well at all. The boy didn’t wave back.
“Fiona,” he greeted his nurse when he entered the hallway on his way to his office, “Whoever that kid is in the waiting room, get him in to a room as soon as possible. He looks emaciated.”
“He’s a new patient. They’ve never been here before. I’ll bring them back right away.”
“Is anyone else in a room yet?”
“No, he’s the first patient,” she answered. “You’re also the first one here today. Dr. Herrle is running a little late and Dr. Ricks has called in sick.”
“Great,” he said with a slight groan. He would be there late tonight, if he had to absorb Dr. Ricks’ patients. He put his bag down in his office, grabbed his stethoscope, and exited the office again. As he turned, something caught his eye and his head snapped toward it. Wide-eyed, he realized that the fluorescent light down this hallway was hanging at a 45 degree angle. “Geez, what happened to our light?” he asked.
“We’ve called maintenance,” one of the nurses said as he walked past the physician. “Hey, did you catch the game last night?”
“Nah, I didn’t get a chance—who won?” Daniel asked.
“We did! Fourteen-nothing. Man, Alberts was hot. You should have seen it—it was a forty-yard run.”
Daniel whistled. “And everyone was saying he’s gonna get traded next year.”
“Not if he keeps this up, they’ll contract him for life,” the nurse declared, and rounded the corner.
Daniel glanced back at the fallen light, and shook his head. “First the keypad, now this.” He entered his hallway again and saw Fiona bringing the woman with the little boy into the first exam room. He perused his tablet for the next few moments while the nurse took the patient’s vitals. Today’s line-up was the usual, except for this one acute visit.
When Fiona exited, she had a grim expression on her face. “That kid is not doing well. He’s thirteen pounds underweight for his age. His vitals are iffy. He’s lethargic and irritable. The mother says she doesn’t have the resources to feed him.”
Daniel looked disturbed. “We’re going to order a full blood panel, but let me go in there and see him first. Any pre-existing conditions?”
“Not that the mother reports.”
“Okay. If she’s not feeding him, we’re probably going to have to involve Social Services. But give me a few minutes. Any other patients waiting?”
He nodded, and glanced at his tablet to look at the child’s vitals. “Okay. I’ll see you in a minute.” He knocked on the exam room door, and entered.
“Thank you so much,” the mother said immediately. She clung to her young son as if letting him go would mean he would vanish. “Thank you for seeing us.”
With compassion, he looked at this woman and child in his office. Both were far too skinny, and the woman smelled of urine and filth. Her clothes were ragged, but he recognized that they were once professional apparel for an office job. She wore no shoes, and had no purse with her. He sat on his stool and took the woman’s hand. “What’s happened to you?” He asked. “How did you get here?”
“I…walked,” she said, perplexed at his question. “They said you could help us. I’m out of food. I have no way to care for my son. I sold everything I have to buy food and now I have nothing left. We haven’t eaten in three days. They said you have ways to get things. Please help,” she begged.
“I will get you help,” he promised, looking them over. “There are places you can go—shelters where there’s food. But right now, I think your son probably needs to have IV fluids—and you may, too. Can I take a look at him?”
She nodded, and allowed Daniel to pull back the dirty blanket in which she held the little boy.
“How old?” he asked.
“Three,” she answered.
This process of starvation had probably started weeks ago, he recognized. The boy started to cry as Daniel lifted his shirt and listened to his breathing, then felt his abdomen. He glanced at his eyes and wanted to get him to open his mouth, but he was too irritable to cooperate. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Fiona is going to draw some blood—on both of you, actually. Then I’m going to make a call, get him started on some IV fluids while he’s here, and then we’ll get him admitted to a hospital. I’m going to have to involve the State…but they’ll help you make sure he’s taken care of, okay?”
She just stared at him, confused.
He thought perhaps the malnutrition was starting to affect her mental capacity. “Okay. I’m going to get you help, okay? You just sit tight.”
She nodded slowly, her eyes still affixed to him in fear as he exited the exam room.
“Fiona, I want to start a saline IV on that kid. Let’s get him re-hydrated. We’re going to have him admitted overnight. I want a blood panel on both of them, and call Social Services.”
“Right away. You’ve got two more patients now. Both acute appointments. Your scheduled appointments aren’t here yet.”
“Weird. Okay. Let’s see ‘em.” He glanced at the tablet, but nothing appeared on his screen but the original schedule. “What’s going on with this thing?”
“It’s not updating properly for new patients. It only shows the old ones,” Fiona said, and shrugged.
“What’s with this office? The keypad, the light, and now the EMR system?”
“Julia said she was taking care of it,” Fiona answered. She entered the orders for the IV saline and CBC and blood panel into her tablet, and then asked, “So…Dr. Addler…what’s the deal with that woman and her son? Where did they come from?”
He shook his head. “I have no idea. You see that kind of thing in third world countries, maybe, or maybe on the South Side—maybe, but you would never see it here.”
“Poor kid. I wonder what happened to their family.”
“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Her clothes look like she was probably employed at one point, not too long ago. I don’t know what happened.”
“I’ll call the pharmacy for that IV. Do you want me to bring the next patient back?”
“No, I’ll bring them back. You work on starting that IV for this little guy. Just take care of them.”
He headed to the waiting room. From where he had been standing outside the exam room and through the cubbyhole that led to the front check-in desk, he could see his two new patients who had entered, but he didn’t get a full view of them until he rounded the corner. One was an old woman whom he had never seen before, who wore old, torn boots and was wrapped in a filthy blanket instead of a coat. The other was a teenage girl who held a bloody rag against her arm. The girl was dressed in a uniform shirt from the electronics store down the street, but she looked like she had just spent time rolling around in the dirt.
“Hey, I’m Dr. Addler. What’s going on?” he asked her gently, and knelt down next to the waiting room chair.
“Got this cut,” she said, and extended her forearm. She lifted the rag slightly and exposed a very deep laceration.
He hissed. “That’s a bad one. You’re going to need stitches. You really should’ve gone to the ER with this, but come on, I can stitch it up for you. Follow me. Ma’am, I’ll get to you in just a moment,” he told the older woman, who didn’t acknowledge him.
The girl followed him back to another exam room, and he saw Fiona arguing on the phone with the pharmacy. He frowned, but didn’t interrupt.
“Go ahead and take a seat. I’m going to grab some supplies.”
He exited the room and said to Fiona, “Let me know if they’re giving you grief. Tell them this is an emergent issue.”
“They’re saying you have to go down there yourself to get it,” she complained. “New policy.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“No, I’m not. I’m sorry.”
He sighed. “Look, get me a suture kit and get the woman in the waiting room back into a room. Take the girl’s vitals in 2, and I’ll be back as soon as I get that IV.”
The trip down to the pharmacy was not a long one. It was housed within their family practice building, in the basement area. He walked past an armed guard at the top of the stairwell, and barely acknowledged him, he was so hurried in getting this saline and moving forward with the treatment for the little boy.
“Jack!” he called, and the pharmacist looked up from his tablet. “I need a 0.9% Saline IV bag. Why the hold-up with Fiona?”
The elderly pharmacist gave him an odd, sad glance that he couldn’t quite understand, and said, “Right away, Daniel.”
“I’m also going to need a suture kit. I would get one upstairs but I don’t know if we’re stocked and I thought I might as well get it here.”
“I can get that for you too,” the man said simply, and went around the corner to the back of the pharmacy to pull the supplies.
“This isn’t your policy, is it?”
“What isn’t?” the man asked, and brought the materials to the counter.
“That I need to come down here myself to get everything instead of sending a nurse. I know we don’t often need stuff right in the office, that the patient usually comes down here to fill the script, but geez, this is a semi-emergent situation. Why can’t Fiona just collect everything? Is this your policy or should I talk to Julia?”
Jack’s bushy white eyebrows furrowed as his blue eyes met Daniel’s and seemed to gaze into his soul. It was as if he was trying to determine whether Daniel was being serious. Finally, he shook his head, and said simply, “No. It’s not my policy. And don’t bother Julia.”
Daniel met Jack’s odd gaze with a confused expression. He collected his supplies and asked, “Are you doing alright?”
“Doing just fine,” Jack told him, and forced a smile.
“Okay,” the physician accepted, and continued, “I have a dehydrated kid up there and I need to get to him…but if something’s bothering you about the way the office is run, or anything else…you know you can talk to me, Jack. I’m here for you and for everyone else in the practice. That’s what my position is here for. We’re having a meeting tomorrow at lunch. Let me know if you want me to bring up any concerns.”
“I’ll do that,” Jack responded.
With that, Daniel turned and headed up the stairs.
He started the IV for the 3-year-old boy, and then exited to pick up the suture kit for the girl with the lacerated arm. He saw through the cubbyhole that he had at least two more patients out in the waiting room. “Anyone on the schedule show up?” he asked the nurse.
“No,” Fiona responded. “But the elderly woman left. She wasn’t really all there. I think she might have just wandered in here to keep warm.”
Daniel frowned, and nodded. He entered exam room 2, and saw the girl still clutching her arm with the bloody rag.
“So what happened? Accident at work?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “It’s a long story.”
“Did someone hurt you?” he asked, and sat down next to her. “Put your arm right here, on the table.”
She shook her head again. “No. It’s no one’s fault.”
He grabbed a nearby container of alcohol hand scrub and applied it to his hands, and then put gloves on. He then flushed her wound, and looked her over briefly. She smelled terrible. If she had come from work, he suspected she had slept on the ground right beforehand. Her hair was disarrayed and she was thin—too thin, even for a teenager. “You know, if you’re in some kind of trouble, you can tell me. I can find help for you.”
She chuckled. “They said you were a little nuts,” she commented, but she didn’t elaborate.
He continued working in silence. Soon, her arm was sutured and bandaged. She thanked him and headed out.
The rest of his day included his normal complement of patients, but there was also a man with a cough that Daniel suspected was tuberculosis, and another case of malnutrition. He was seriously wondering whether his office had suddenly become a resource on someone’s list for the homeless and indigent.
His drive home was uneventful, and he pulled onto the charge pad in his garage. He suspected his wife would be frustrated because her car was still missing. He thought perhaps he would start planning a nice dinner out this Saturday. Maybe they would go to Maggiano’s, their favorite local Italian restaurant. Denise, the girl down the street, would probably be able to babysit.
He entered the house, and was immediately greeted by both of his children.
“Hey, guys! How was your day today?”
“We’re getting ready for Thanksgiving!” Calvin declared. “I’m learning about how to make stuffing. Mom said I can stick my hand in the turkey’s butt!”
He laughed. “That does sound like fun.”
Just then, Kelly rounded the corner and smiled at him. “Hey, you’re home late tonight!”
He looked at his watch and nodded. “Yeah, we got bombarded at work today. A bunch of really needy people—I honestly have never seen so many patients have such significant problems in this neighborhood. I’m wondering what this is all about—maybe we got listed on some kind of resource site or something.”
“Hm, that is odd,” she said, and kissed his cheek. She tucked an errant strand of dusty blonde hair behind her ear and said, “I’m using up more of our food storage tonight, hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” he said. “Hey, I had a thought. Why don’t we watch a movie tonight? As a family?”
“Yay!” the kids both yelled, and Kelly shrugged, and nodded. “Sounds good to me. What movie?”
“Oh, I don’t know, we’ll pick something out.”
“First, I want you to take a look at the generator. I think it may need some adjustment. The lights have been flickering,” she said, and pointed up. The lights blinked, as if on cue.
“I’ll take a look. Will you start dinner while I’m out there?”
“Sure,” she responded, and headed into the kitchen.
“Hey, where’s Fox?” he asked before exiting the side door.
“He’s upstairs, sleeping,” Calvin explained. “He doesn’t feel good.”
“Oh, too bad. Wonder what’s wrong,” he mused, and left the house.
They had four generators for the house. Each was housed in a protective metal casing that was locked with an electronic keypad and manual lock. He checked three of the four and found no problem, but as he was warming his hands in his pockets, staring at the tiny screen in the cold November air, he saw the problem with the last one. A minor adjustment to a valve and it reported no further issues.
He headed back to the side door that would grant him entrance to his warm, inviting home. Before he stepped across the threshold, though, he turned, seeing something in the neighbor’s yard that gave him pause. The realtor who lived next to them had always taken such fantastic care of their colonial style home, but Daniel saw that one of their decorative shutters on the first floor was missing, and another was decidedly crooked. He frowned, but didn’t give it much thought as he headed back into his own house for a lovely family dinner.
“Get me anything to staunch the blood flow! Now!” Daniel held his hand against his patient’s bloody leg desperately. “Hold on, we’re going to get you help.”
The young man was delirious with blood loss, and his eyes started to roll back in their sockets. His blood had already gotten on Daniel’s good shoes and pants, and now it was leaking through the physician’s fingers and onto the exam table.
With the nurse nowhere in sight, and Daniel desperate for solutions, he took the man’s filthy shirt in his fist and tore it as hard as he could. He now had a strip of cloth, and he tied it around the injury. Then he took the man’s belt off of his pants and used it as a tourniquet around the patient’s leg, proximal to the gunshot wound.
“Hold on,” he told his patient firmly, and tore out of the room. “I need epinephrine and saline and—Fiona, where are you?” he bellowed. She was not in the hallway. His normal patients—here for a runny nose or cough, stuck their heads out of the exam room doors as he darted down the hall as quickly as he could toward the basement.
He ran past the armed guard and down to Jack, who had already heard the commotion. “What do you need?” the pharmacist asked.
Daniel quickly listed off a number of items. “I’ve got a gunshot wound up there,” he breathed as Jack worked quickly to pull items off the shelf. “Can you believe it? I don’t know why he didn’t go to the ER, but he’s gonna bleed out if we don’t do something immediately. And I can’t find Fiona or any of the other nurses.”
Jack handed him the supplies and drugs, and Daniel turned and ran up the stairs again.
He hadn’t participated in surgery since his residency. Beads of sweat dripped down his forehead as he tried to extract the bullet in minimal light. “Fiona, why isn’t this light working?!” he yelled in frustration about five minutes into the procedure, but she wasn’t answering. No one was answering.
Finally, the door opened, and he turned to see her come in with a mask and gloves. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
“What happened?” he demanded angrily. “I’m in here with this guy—just get his BP, okay?”
“All of the nurses were called in. Julia called us in to talk about the power outage.”
“What?” he asked, his mind barely processing the words she was speaking.
“The power’s out. Maintenance is on it. Tablets are down, though. That’s why the light isn’t working.”
He gave an exasperated sigh, and shook his head. “And Julia decided to call the entire nursing staff into a meeting about this? When we have a gunshot wound victim in our office?!”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“No, apparently not,” he said, and finally extracted the bullet. “I’m sorry,” he said. His hands were working quickly, trying to staunch the internal bleeding. The man was now hooked up to a saline drip, and his BP was improving. “It’s not your fault. It’s just…I need to talk to Julia. This is ridiculous.”
“Well, we have the meeting this afternoon.”
“Yeah,” he said, and continued working.
An hour later, Daniel was fairly certain his patient was stabilized. He exited the exam room, and his patients were lining the hallway. They began to applaud him. He smiled courteously at them. They obviously had heard what was happening. “Never thought I’d have to deal with that in my office, huh?” he said to them, trying to lighten the mood a bit.
“Take your time, Dr. Addler,” said his long-time friend and patient Tom Geigler. “I don’t mind the wait.”
“No, we’ve got time, please, take time for yourself,” another of his patients said. They all went back into their exam rooms simultaneously, as if it had been planned.
Just then, his phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket, and glanced at the CID. It was home. He sighed. “Listen, Fiona, I have to take this. We lost our dog last night. This is probably my wife calling with my kids on the line. They were really upset when I left this morning.”
“I’m so sorry. Go ahead, take all the time you need,” Fiona said. “Especially after all that,” she indicated the exam room where his gunshot wound victim was now recovering.
He answered the call, and heard little Virginia’s voice on the other end. “Daddy! Mommy said I could call you. I miss you.”
“I miss you too, little one. I know I promised to call around lunch time but we had an emergency here. We had to take care of the emergency.”
“Is everyone okay?”
“Everyone’s just fine,” he promised. “Why don’t you put Mommy on the line? I’d like to talk to her, okay?”
“I love you.”
It was another few moments before Kelly’s voice entered his ear. “Daniel, I looked into a few pet shops. I was thinking maybe you could come home early tonight, and we could go together. What do you think?”
He sighed and leaned against the wall in the hallway. “I know we said we wanted to do this right away…but honestly, I’m totally swamped here. We just had a major emergency. Everyone’s okay but I think I’m going to be even later tonight than I was last night. Especially since I’m the only doctor who decided to come in today. Everyone’s out sick. Maybe we can try for Saturday. Would that be okay?”
“I just don’t want to be in the house without a dog, and poor little Calvin is still crying his eyes out.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said sincerely. “I just…I can’t. Not today. Look…if you want to take him, that’s fine. It’s okay with me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Please, take him and Virginia. Don’t make them wait.”
“Okay. Is everything okay there?”
He shook his head. “You’re never going to believe this.” He walked down the hall and toward his office. When he entered, he sat down heavily on the chair. He took a moment to breathe deeply for the first time after this event. He had not really processed it yet. He had just performed emergency field surgery on a man with a gunshot wound. In his neighborhood. In his office. “This guy came in…about an hour ago. He walked in on his own two feet…but he had been shot in the leg. He somehow got himself here…he had lost a lot of blood, Kelly. I can’t believe it. I know I shouldn’t be telling you this over the phone, but I just can’t believe it.”
“How…really?” was all she could manage to communicate.
“Yes. I somehow saved him. We’ve got to get him to a hospital, and I don’t know if there will be an infection afterward—he’s going to need antibiotics, he’s going to probably need follow-up surgery…but he’s alive. For now. I just can’t believe it.”
“I bet. That’s the event of a lifetime. My goodness.” She paused. “Well…if you’re going to be late, that’s okay. We’ll head to the pet shop. Hopefully there will be a puppy waiting for you when you get home.”
“Yeah. I just can’t wrap my head around this,” he said, and laughed nervously. “I have other patients.”
“Go to them. I’ll see you whenever you can get home. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
They hung up, and Daniel sat in his office chair, still dumbfounded. He glanced at the pictures around his office. The artwork of his pediatric patients. Pictures of himself with his family. A few trinkets here and there. Memorabilia from football, baseball, and hockey games. A clock that looked like a golf ball. As he stood, his foot crunched something on the floor, and he immediately withdrew from it. Looking down, he saw a piece of plaster on the carpeting. He looked up, and saw a chunk missing from the ceiling. “What in the…?”
“Dr. Addler! We’ve got six patients waiting and three more in the waiting area,” Fiona called.
He looked behind him at the plaster as he headed back out to his work. He felt like his mind was in a whirlwind, like he was being spirited away from his normally calm, grounded state of being. A power outage…the loss of his dog…the gunshot wound…the plaster…the still-unfixed fluorescent lighting in the hallway…it was all swirling around in a soup of current events that he tried to put out of his mind, so he could focus on his next patient.
As he rounded the corner, for just a moment he saw the hallway carpet covered with ceiling plaster, deserted of all nursing staff, and with one of the exam room doors held on only by the bottom hinge. A broken tablet laid on the floor, and someone’s abandoned, dusty shoe was also present. It looked like the place had been hit by a bomb. He blinked. It was back to normal.
He shook his head, and leaned against the wall. What was wrong with him? It was well into lunch…maybe this was low blood sugar. Maybe working on the gunshot wound victim without nourishment had left him dehydrated and hypoglycemic. Maybe he just needed to eat and drink.
He resolved to do just that, before seeing his next patient. Whatever vision he had just seen, he hoped that a sandwich and cold bottle of water would banish it from his mind forever.
Before he left the office that evening, he decided to go to Julia’s office on the upper floor of the family practice building to discuss their increasingly unacceptable working conditions.
As he ascended the stairs, he felt a growing uneasiness building in his chest, as if something within him was telling him not to move forward. It became an almost palpable presence as his chest began to constrict, and breaths came to him in short gasps. He stopped at the top of the stairs as a fleeting thought entered his mind that perhaps he was having a heart attack. His head swam, and he leaned on the wall. A chill shuddered through him, and he snapped his head toward the source of the cold air.
His eyes grew wide and he stumbled backward toward the door as he realized he was staring at a large, truck-sized hole in the wall. It was as if something had hit the side of the building. Plaster was everywhere, and a crumbling wall still held a twisted ladder that once led to the roof. He grasped at the stairwell railing, and breathed deeply before finally, his vision cleared. He saw the stairwell as it had always been.
With shaking hands, he opened the door to the office level and stumbled inside. Julia’s office was the last one at the end of the hallway. He passed closed doors on either side, a tidy office plant, and a secretary’s desk. Everything seemed normal, but fear began to mount within him as he drew closer to the office manager’s door. Each step seemed to slow his gait until he was moving in perpetual slow motion toward his destination.
Finally, with apprehension, he grasped the door handle, and pushed the door.
He was faced with an empty office. Nothing appeared out of place. Her computer sat atop her desk and a sweater was draped over the back of the chair. Pictures of her family adorned the office. Smiling little children on a sailboat off the coast of Hilton Head Island, their favorite vacation spot. He figured she had already gone home, and was about to back out of the room and close the door.
However, he paused. In the reflection of a mirror on Julia’s bookshelf adjacent to the door, he caught sight of the office for just a moment. His eyes were drawn to it, and he took another step inside to gain a better view. Some morbid curiosity held his gaze there, as he looked at a barren desk, covered in plaster and dust, devoid of pictures or trinkets…and her now-ruined sweater still draped over the back of her dilapidated chair. He blinked. The reflection was there still. When he turned back, the office appeared as it had a moment before, as though Julia had just left for the day.
He shook his head, and blinked hard, as if trying to remove some particles from his eyes. His confusion did not abate, and he approached the mirror slowly. He stopped just short of obtaining the angle he needed to see his own reflection. It was as if some otherworldly force held him there, preventing him from moving forward.
He backed away.
His hand wildly grasped for the handle of the door behind him, and he rushed out of the office. He shut the door and briskly fled down the hallway. Down one flight of stairs and out the front door, toward his piano black sedan. He hurled his bag into the passenger’s side and collapsed into the driver’s seat. Hands on the steering wheel, he stared straight ahead, blinking the images he had just seen out of his mind’s eye. What was happening to him? Was he going insane?
As he brought himself to turn on his electric car and drive the short distance home, a sort of yearning seemed to capture his soul. He began to think of his children. He wanted to spend this evening teaching Calvin about the Constitution, and the United States’ founding, and tell him stories about the proud country’s history. He wanted to teach Virginia about their faith, and ensure she had a solid foundation. He wanted to sit with his children and answer their questions, and talk with them about the little world in which they lived, and the big world in which they would one day enter. More than anything in the world, he wanted to hold his little ones close to him, and never let go.
He pulled the vehicle onto the charge pad in the garage, and didn’t even think about the fact that Kelly’s car was still in the shop. He headed directly in the door, a bit saddened that he would not be greeted by a big, slobbery, lovable dog tonight. “Hey! I’m home!” he called.
Kelly entered from the kitchen and gave him a hug. “I’ve missed you,” she said, her words heartfelt and sincere. She embraced him warmly, and he returned her gesture. “You have no idea how much I missed you,” she followed up quietly.
“I know,” he answered back, and the two conversed silently, as if their minds were connected on another plane. They held each other, and Daniel closed his eyes as she rested her head against his chest.
Finally, she pulled away. “The kids are over at friends’ houses tonight,” she said, and he deflated at that. He had so looked forward to seeing them. “But now we have the evening alone together. What do you think?”
He smiled, and continued to hold her hand. “I need to decompress. Let’s have a nice quiet dinner and then spend the evening together.”
“That sounds perfect,” she replied, and leaned in to kiss him.
Sunlight streamed through his window and slid onto his face slowly. Through the small, castle-style windows of his bedroom, the physician was exposed to the new morning. He swung his legs around the side of the bed and allowed himself to then fall to his knees, his eyes mostly closed. He bowed his head in humble prayer. When he squinted his eyes open in the bright morning light, he saw that Kelly was not in bed.
Puzzled, he headed into the bathroom to get ready for the day, and figured he would see her in the kitchen. Maybe after he had such a tough day yesterday, with a gunshot wound, a gang rape victim, and the…whatever had happened to him, in Julia’s office…his wife had decided to make him breakfast.
When he entered the kitchen, he found that she had done just that. Eggs and bacon were waiting for him. “Food storage again,” she said with a smile. “We’ve got to eat this stuff up.”
“No problem. I’ll eat powdered eggs and defrosted bacon,” he responded, and kissed her good morning. “I slept in. I’m about ten minutes late.”
“Eat fast then, and head to work. There are a lot of patients who need you.”
“Yeah, since we’ve become a third world urgent care center. Seriously. I don’t know what’s going on. Hey…how’s your work going? I feel like I’ve completely ignored you.”
“No, you haven’t!” she protested, and sat down at the table with him. “You’re fine. You’re so busy. You’ve got so much on your mind.”
“Well, even still. Tell me about how everything’s going.”
“It’s going great. We’ve got some more sales, and I hope we’ll be able to open a new site soon.”
“Fantastic,” he said with a smile. He said a quick blessing for his food, and then dug into the mediocre-tasting cuisine.
Their conversation continued on, and when he was finished with his food and stood to leave, she followed him to the door.
“I’m sorry you’ve been stranded here without a car,” he said, and she laughed.
“It’s fine. I work out of the house, and the other parents are dealing with transportation for Virginia and Calvin, so it’s no problem. It should be done soon.”
“Good. They’re taking forever.”
“I hope you have a wonderful day at work,” she told him.
He smiled. “I will. I love you.”
“I love you more than anything on this Earth, Daniel,” she said, and pulled him into a strong embrace. They hugged as if they were departing for decades. Finally, he kissed her gently. He saw a tear escape her eye and roll down her cheek. He felt his own tears welling in his eyes, but he refused to allow them to flow. He picked up his bag, and looked back at her one last time before entering the garage.
Business was slow. There were no patients this morning, and only a few scheduled appointments. His scheduled patients were late. He saw Megan Yuri had returned on his schedule with the same complaint, and thought that perhaps the antibiotic he had given her for the sinus infection was not helping her improve.
But Megan hadn’t arrived yet, and so he found himself walking the deserted hallway of his practice, heading toward the basement stairwell that led down to the pharmacy.
He grasped the door handle, and paused there. Something was wrong.
He steeled himself for another visual hallucination, but none came. In fact, everything was perfectly still. Silent.
He looked behind him. There was no one in this office. No nursing staff. No fellow physicians. No patients. There were no sounds of planes in flight above, even though they were relatively close to an airport. There were no sounds of cars on the main road just outside the office. It was still.
He pulled the door handle. The armed guard at the top of the stairs nodded to him, and he nodded back.
The man was dressed in a bulletproof vest atop civilian clothing, with a mismatched helmet on his head.
His name was Frank, Daniel remembered. He had gotten this job not long ago. He was paid well, and reported that he liked the work.
As Daniel descended the stairs, his feet crunched littered plaster and debris. He rounded the corner and entered the dimly-lit pharmacy.
Jack sat at his post, staring at a piece of paper. It was an inventory list. The tablets were still out. The tablets had not come back online since—
Daniel pulled his mind away from that thought as Jack’s eyes rose from his page and he removed his spectacles from the end of his nose. The older man didn’t speak. He seemed to study Daniel’s eyes again, his gaze peering into the physician’s soul in a way that left the younger man in a sort of limbo. His consciousness teetered between two worlds. He saw Jack in his brilliant white, tidy pharmacist’s coat, the lighting bright and inviting to patients who came down here to fill their prescriptions. And he also saw the stained, worn and tattered jacket. Jack’s embroidered name was barely visible on it. In the flickering, dim lighting, the nearly-empty pharmacy shelves behind him and the shrinking inventory list in front of him spoke volumes to Daniel.
“Are you starting to see again?” Jack’s words sliced through Daniel’s reverie.
He blinked. Bright lighting returned. “What do you mean?”
Jack’s gaze fell, and he placed both hands on the counter gently as he considered his next words. “Daniel…this isn’t healthy.”
The lights dimmed once more, and Daniel shook his head. “I don’t…I…there’s nothing…I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Eventually, you will,” came the pharmacist’s sad reply.
Daniel stumbled backward. The brightness was not returning. He nearly fell into the stairwell as he slipped on a piece of debris. He scrambled up the stairs, fueled by the need to get away. He had to leave…he couldn’t be here. It was no longer bright…
He reached the patient level, and navigated through plaster and dust-strewn carpeting. He burst through the front door of his office, and ran past dead, abandoned cars to reach his own vehicle. He clambered inside, shut the door, and closed his eyes.
As he did, an image flashed in his mind. A bright streak across the sky. In an instant, the networks were down. The panic began.
The screams of those outside his office echoed just inside the realm of his consciousness. From afar, their voices cried for assistance as the world crumbled around them.
He felt his hand reaching down to his pocket, and extracting his phone. Its blank, unresponsive screen betrayed the fact that it was not functional. It had not been functional for almost a month now. He could have charged it at home. He was prepared. He had four generators, and two years’ worth of food for a family of four and a dog. He could have charged the phone.
But then he would hear it again. The last voicemail. Kelly’s voice.
“No,” he spoke aloud, and turned on the car. He could not stay here. He could not be tortured with this. He had to go home. He had to hear Kelly one more time. He had to hear Calvin and Virginia. He had to hear Fox greeting him at the door.
He peeled out of the parking lot and sped home as quickly as he could.
He pulled into the driveway and didn’t even bother with the garage. His legs propelled him to the door, and he burst inside, fully expecting to immediately see his family standing there in the foyer, waiting for him.
But they were not there.
“They’re in the basement, getting food,” he said aloud. His own words echoed in the empty house, and in his mind. He entered the basement, then the subbasement. He tore past the family room setup and past the large collection of movies that could have kept them entertained for hours on end. He saw the enormous pantry with more than enough food to weather this storm.
But his family was horribly absent.
His heart-rending search led him through the entire castle of a house. From room to room, he fled from reality. His immaculate house stood stalwart throughout the catastrophe, exterior skin intact, food stores plentiful, generators pumping blood through its veins…but its heart was absent.
He finally reached his bedroom. He looked out at the desolate streets, abandoned cars and increasingly dilapidated houses checkering the once-perfect, affluent neighborhood.
And the voicemail played in his ears.
“I’m going to take the kids and head to your parents’ house. I know we should probably get into the shelter but I can’t just leave them there when all this is going on. Please check your phone. Please call me and let me know you’re okay. I love you.”
He squinted his eyes closed in pain as he finally allowed those tears to flow, leaning one hand on the windowsill for support.
He whirled at the sound of his name spoken by that beautiful voice of perfection and love. She was there. Shimmering in some kind of half-present state. Her eyes met his, and they shared yet another silent conversation.
“Please…don’t go,” he finally begged her aloud.
She complemented her simple, loving gaze by reaching out her hand to his. He could touch it, if for only a moment.
“You have to choose,” she said finally, and was quiet.
It seemed an eternity passed before he promised her, “We will see each other again.”
She nodded once, tears forming in her eyes.
“I love you forever,” he said, and before he could embrace her, he saw his children shimmer into a similar luminescent form. They ran over to him, and he allowed a sob to escape his lips. He reached down to embrace them.
The family surrounded Daniel for a moment longer, and then he found himself on his knees, on his carpeted, white bedroom floor. The sunlight streamed through the windows, and brightly illuminated the house untouched by the exterior destruction.
He looked down at his neatly-pressed clothing, and placed a shaking hand on his tidy bedspread. The shell was undamaged, but the spirit had only begun to heal.
He made a decision.
He would return to work.
“What kind of experience have you had?”
“Well, I was a nurse for fifteen years in an ER before the attacks,” the young woman answered. “Before that, I was a CNA and I worked as an EMT for two years before going to nursing school.”
“That’s good. We’re going to need someone with emergency experience. How did you find us?”
“I saw your ad posted on the shelter bulletin board. I just came here with a group that formed in Missouri, but I didn’t want to stay with them anymore. They were…well, let’s just say they were too rough around the edges for me. I know this used to be a nice neighborhood.”
“It still is a nice neighborhood,” Daniel told her. “At least, we’re going to make it that way. Now…let’s talk compensation. Most patients pay in food or gas. We’ve got a pretty decent bartering system going on. One nurse accepted clothing and toiletries for her family last month as payment, but she also has a husband who works. What would you be willing to accept?”
“I’m gonna need the food. Maybe later, when everyone starts getting on their feet, gas would make more sense for me. But I need food—preferably canned food.”
“Understood. And Kylie, if you ever need help, please let me know. I’m not going to let anyone in this town starve. Okay?”
She smiled at his paternal gaze, and almost looked emotional as she nodded. “Thank you. They said you were…trying to be a leader here. From a…” she paused, and wiped her eyes. “Sorry…from a purely professional standpoint…I have to ask, are you planning on leaving the practice? I can’t start working here if you’re just going to leave.”
He met her eyes across Julia’s desk. No. Across his desk. Now cleared off of all debris, cleaned thoroughly with soap and water, and restored mostly to its original condition, he sat behind it to build this practice, and build this community.
“I lost my family. The day it happened. I lost everything. I lost most of my friends. I even, for a time, lost who I was. No—I had who I was. I didn’t understand who I am.” At her confusion, he smiled slightly. “We don’t need a mayor to sit behind a desk. We need people…like me…like you…to go to work. I will be a leader here by being here. And I’d like you to be here with us.”
“I’m happy to come on board,” she answered.
He stood, and extended his hand. “Welcome. And thank you. Now…let’s go heal.”