Three cracked skulls, four hit-and-runs, two stabbings, three heart attacks, one stroke, five cases of anaphylaxis, and assorted bumps and scrapes.
Pru dropped onto the bench in an exhausted slump and dug the heels of her hands into her eyes. Straightening slowly, she arched her back. Vertebrae popped, and she sighed in relief. She pulled the starched nurse’s cap off her head, slipping pins loose that held her blonde curls much too tight; she scrubbed at her scalp, moaning a bit in relief. Rolling her neck, she closed her eyes, and let her head fall back, wallowing in the relative silence and emptiness of the locker room. The PA squawked overhead, and a gurney squeaked as it rolled down the hall outside. Everyone else on shift was either tending those assorted bumps and scrapes or gathered around a television.
Leigh had invited her to join the party after shift. Beer, tacos, moon pies, cute guys! Come on, it’ll be fun! You’ll make it just in time!
Pru’s grimace of exhaustion turned into a tiny smile. She really should go. Not like there was ever going to a first Moon landing again ….
The PA crackled to life and Veronica’s voice echoed. “Nurse Pegg, there is a call for you on line four. Nurse Pegg, call for you on line four.”
Pru sighed. That’s probably Leigh, making sure I’ll actually come.
Heaving herself to her feet, she yanked open the door and headed down the hall to the nearest nurses’ station. Normally, there would have been a dozen women answering the phones, scribbling on charts, and exchanging gossip. Not tonight. Only Veronica stood there, her back to Pru, darting a distracted gaze back and forth between the chart in her hands and the television on the far side of the packed lounge. Walter Cronkite’s soothing voice was barely audible through the glass walls, but Pru could make out the grainy image of Armstrong and Aldrin flipping buttons and switches inside the landing module.
Veronica half-turned her head, eyes locked on the tv. “It’s your Grandpa.”
Pru’s hand froze over the telephone. Her fingers twitched. “ … Okay … thanks.” She slowly lifted the handset from its cradle and held it up to her ear. “Hello, Grandfather.”
His voice never changed: deep, and slightly rumbly, with the faintest trace of an accent that had not otherwise been heard in centuries. She loved his voice, loved the accent — but the lack of breathing on his end of the line always made her slightly ill.
“Two friends of mine are feeling a tad under the weather. I was hoping that you might look in on them.”
“Of course, I would be happy to. What’s their address?”
“379 West Marshall Street. I’ve told them to expect you.”
“I’ll be there shortly. … And you, Grandfather? How are you feeling?”
There was a short pause and his tone changed to weary amusement. “I am well enough, Prudence, well enough. Nothing that a little sleep won’t cure. I apologize if I have interrupted any plans you had for this evening, but I am afraid that it could not be helped.”
Pru glanced at the television, the image shifting back and forth between Cronkite, Mission Control, and the landing module. Moon pies and cute guys! “No,” she lied, “no plans.”
It was a relatively simple code, but effective. There was a Cold War on, and you never knew who might be listening or watching or following — “our” government, or “their” government, or someone or something else entirely — so it was best to take precautions. Pru had learned that early on, the hard way.
She headed east on Marshall Street, away from the hospital and downtown, her aging Buick bouncing over the potholes. The bars were packed, and so were the sidewalks in front of the electronics stores, every television tuned to the same story. Even the drive-in movie theater was full, cars spilling out onto the street, Cronkite’s huge head looming over the masses. She circled around the park, doubling back and heading west on Breslin Street, then east again on Oswald. At 10th Avenue, she cut back over to Marshall and continued east until she finally reached the nine hundred block.
She drove at a normal speed, not slowing as she passed the house with 973 written on the front curb. Normal looking: two stories, blue siding, white trim, but with an odd yellow light glowing in the screened front porch.
Pru circled around and parked across the street, a few houses away. She looked around, studying the buildings around her. The electric blue of television screens flickered behind curtains, windows, and sliding doors shoved open so that excited conversation rolled through the neighborhood. There was cheering and some whoops. Finally satisfied, she flashed the Buick’s headlights twice.
The yellow porch light flicked off, on, off, on.
Cutting the engine, she clambered out, double checking to make sure all the doors were locked. Casting around another quick glance, she popped the trunk, pulled out her go bag, and softly closed it again.
She approached the door cautiously, bag in one hand, the other hand loose by her side. A knee-length brown coat covered her white nurse’s uniform, and her hat was stuffed in one pocket, but she still felt too visible in her white tights and shoes.
The inner door opened.
Pru stopped. “Grandfather sent me.”
A man stepped through the door, limping slightly as he crossed the porch. He peered at her through the front screen door, looking her up and down. Mid-fifties, Pru judged, with tightly-curled black hair and the deep black skin of a child of eastern Africa. Spatters of bodily fluids covered his blue shirt. An old scar ran across the right side of his forehead; below that, a fresh cut sliced across his cheek.
Pru hefted her bag, opening it to reveal the medical supplies.
The man gave a single, sharp nod and unlocked the screen door. He swung it open, revealing the rifle held loosely in his left hand. She sniffed. The fluids on his shirt were a mixture of blood, mucus, and gore, only some of it human. As he shifted to the side to let her pass, dog tags slipped over his collar and dangled down the front of his shirt. A deep gouge obliterated the name, but the unit number was still visible. 369 Infantry.
He gestured towards the front door. “In there. Through the living room to the kitchen.”
Pru nodded, carefully stepping over the line of salt at the threshold. She made quick note of the pots of chrysanthemums, geraniums, jasmine, snapdragon, and violets along the porch window ledge, and in both windows on either side of the door. A wreath of dried marigold, rosemary, sage, and thyme hung in the center of that same door. Someone knew their warding herbs quite well.
Stepping over the second line of salt, she pushed open the inner door and made her way across the living room. Worn, but well cared-for couch and matching chairs, steamer trunk piled with quilts, bookcases stuffed to overflowing, and a gigantic, old-fashioned radio, but no television. Except for the quilts, there were no personal touches in the room at all: no knick knacks, no photos, no trophies.
A rueful chuckle, tinged with pain, sounded from the kitchen. “Grandfather sent us a lady doctor this time, hunh?”
“Um, yes ….”
A second man — much younger, but with the same tight curls and deep black skin — sat at the kitchen table, an open bottle of Jack Daniels clutched in his left hand. He slouched a bit in his chair, eyes bloodshot and lined with exhaustion. Gore covered his jeans and thick-soled boots. More blood and gore was splattered across what remained of his shirt. His right arm was propped up on the table, a wicked looking purple barb sticking out of his forearm; the skin around it was a sickly red and yellow.
She pursed her lips. “You’ve been playing with a rompo, I see.”
He grinned, then winced. “A whole nest of them, actually. Nasty fu — ”
“Language!” the older man chided, brushing passed Pru. “Not in the presence of a lady.”
Pru followed him into the kitchen, setting her bag down on the table. “I’ve worked various emergency rooms for fifteen years. I’ve heard it all. No need to be careful around me.”
The older man just humphed.
“Pop’s old fashioned,” the younger man explained.
“All right, then.” Pru flipped open her bag and began to pull out and arrange her supplies on a sheet of sterile paper: cotton cloths, gloves, mask, antiseptic, scalpels, depressors and retractors, sponges and gauze, scissors, needle and thread, waste bag. “How do Junior and Senior sound? Call me … Doctor.”
Junior barked a laugh, which turned to an annoyed scowl when she gently pried the bottle of booze from his hand and set it on the table. Senior silently nodded.
Pru lowered herself into the chair in front of Junior, leaning in to examine the barb and discolored skin while she snapped on her gloves. Her nose wrinkled at the combination of sweat, urine, feces, and blood. “Am I going to have to worry about more wounded coming in, and me having to explain bizarre porcupine injuries to my coworkers?”
“No, ma’am,” Senior assured her. He grunted as he dropped into the chair across the table. “We got all the rompos, every last one.”
“Good.” She wrestled the mask into place, covering her nose and mouth. “I need to check you over first, before I deal with the barb. The toxin stings like hell, but it won’t kill you. Hemorrhaging from being stomped on by an angry rompo, on the other hand ….”
Junior chuckled. “They were a mite unhappy to see us.”
She ran her fingers and palms over Junior’s skull and throat and shoulders, poking and squeezing. “Grandfather sounded tired on the phone. Is he alright?” She ignored the short silence, concentrating on the feel of muscle and fat and bone.
“Yeah,” Junior finally answered. “Fine. He was there. Called him when we got wind of the nest. Figure a pregnant bitch came over from Nigeria or Liberia or some such on a ship. Set herself up near the harbor. Ate a few homeless — ”
“ — Vets,” Senior interrupted. “Some of the guys found pieces of their friends. They came to me, we found the nest, we called Grandfather. End of story.”
She felt her way around Junior’s torso, and he hissed at her touch. “Your ribs are bruised. It doesn’t feel like anything is broken, though. Can you sit up straight?” She stood, moving around to slide her hands up and down his back, tracing his spine, testing his kidneys. “All good there.” She moved to his abdomen and hips, and felt him tense. “Not holding out on me, are you, Junior?”
“No, ma’am,” he panted.
She straightened, eyes narrowed over the mask. “Let me explain something to you. I am here to treat your injuries and make sure that you live to fight another day, to hunt the beasties and the monsters and the creepy-crawlies. You hold out on me, lie, play macho, I might miss something. Something that will kill you later tonight or tomorrow morning or next week. I treated a tough guy once who didn’t tell me that his knee hurt. Two days later, a larval shamir worm erupted from his leg, ate him, ate his wife, and had free reign of the sewers for a year until Grandfather finally hunted it down. So, Junior,” she leaned down and looked him in the eyes, “are you holding out on me?”
Junior grimaced. “Got a headache. Left hip hurts like hell, almost as bad as that damn barb. My knee don’t hurt, but my left ankle feels like it’s on fire.”
Pru nodded once and continued with her examination. She cut off the remains of his shirt and threw it into the waste bag. Bacterial wipes, antiseptic gels, and ice packs took care of most of the bodily damage; that familiar hospital smell filled the kitchen. The headache would just have to go away on its own; no painkillers on top of the Jack Daniels he had already downed. Senior just chuckled when she told his son that, and the younger man glowered.
“Now, that barb.” She ripped off her gloves, added them to the waste bag, and pulled on a fresh pair. She gingerly pressed the swollen flesh of Junior’s forearm, feeling for the hooked end. “It’s about an inch-and-a-quarter in. Missed the bone, though. I should be able to cut it out without leaving too much of a scar.”
“Ladies like the scars.”
Pru shot him a half-playful glare over her mask. “Some, yes. This is going to hurt.” She tore open a wipe and carefully swabbed his arm. “Might want to distract yourself.”
“Distract myself? Yeah, sure, no problem. Hand me that bottle of Jack.”
“No.” She picked up a surgical scalpel.
Junior cracked a laugh, then hissed, his body hunching when the blade pierced his skin. She cut quickly, cleanly, slicing a neat line right up to the barb. He grunted when the scalpel bumped it.
“Almost there,” she assured him, slipping in a retractor to hold the cut open. “You’re not distracting yourself.”
“I can take it,” he panted.
From the corner of her eye, she watched Senior’s large, calloused hand slowly close around his son’s shoulder. He squeezed gently, the webbing of scars across his knuckles pulling tight. Another quick slice on the other side of the barb.
Pru heard herself talking. “I met a few Harlem Hellfighters. The 369th Infantry were proud men, good soldiers. I worked at Valley Forge General Hospital my last year of nursing school, in ’45 and ’46, patching up soldiers on their way home. Some of them had interesting stories to tell about their time overseas. Not that I believed them, not then.” She peeled the skin back with a tongue depressor, a fraction of an inch at a time, exposing the length of the barb. The skin grew more inflamed the farther down she went.
“Yes. It wasn’t always Germans that we were fighting,” Senior said.
She found the tip of the barb, a deeper purple than the spine. It was ugly and spiky and tangled in the muscles of his forearm. She put aside the scalpel, set another small retractor in place, and grabbed a second scalpel with a more precise blade. She began to cut. “My first job out of nursing school was with a family practitioner out west. Nothing unusual, normal day in and day out. Then, one night, I get home to find two people in my living room, man and woman. Bloody, cut up bad, bite marks. They were armed. I could see the guns and knives. The swords. But they never threatened me, not once. They just wanted my help — and that I not tell anyone. So, I did. A few days later, I found an envelope on my porch stuffed with money, and a business card with a phone number. I thought about it for, oh, ten minutes, and then called. Grandfather answered, and I’ve been on call ever since.”
“Just the phone?” Junior grunted. “Never met him?”
“Not in person, no.”
“Lucky. Yeah. Grandfather pant is one scary guy.”
One last nick and she put down her scalpel. Hands steady, she lifted the barb free and held it up.
“Nasty,” Junior repeated.
Pru dropped the barb onto the sterile paper beside her used scalpels. “No argument from me.” Her head lifted when a low roar and cheers penetrated the walls. She smiled. “I guess Armstrong and Aldrin made it.”
“Who?” Senior frowned as Junior burst out laughing.
“Pops, you are so pant out of touch.” His laughter turned to snickers, then groans when Pru picked up the needle and thread. “Don’t suppose I could have any of that Jack? Just a sip?”
She was quick with the needle; too much practice. After she slathered Junior’s arm in antiseptic gel and wrapped it in multiple layers of gauze, Senior helped him to the couch in the living room. Pru followed, scissors ready.
“You don’t need to stick around,” Junior was saying, eyes drooping. “I’ll be good.”
“Mmm,” she said as his head fell back against the padded arm and his eyes closed. Fingers and hands fast and efficient, she sliced through his gore-covered jeans and the laces on his boots. Rolling him gently, she pulled the clothing free and — grimacing — tossed them into the waste bag held out by Senior. Her mask and gloves followed, and he disappeared through a door in the rear of the kitchen and down a flight of creaky stairs. Pru grabbed one of the quilts. She held it to her nose to inhale the scents of lavender and lemon, driving the hospital smell from her head, then gently spread it across Junior. Clanking and squeaking sounded through the grates in the floor and, a moment later, the soft whoosh of a heater lighting.
Pru was tucking the quilt around Junior’s shoulders when his father trudged back into the living room. Face gray with exhaustion, he gingerly lowered himself into one of the over-stuffed chairs.
“You should change, burn your clothes, too.”
He shook his head, carefully lifting one leg onto the footstool. He rubbed his knee. “Later. Get him through the night and food in his stomach, and then I’ll take care of myself.” Eyes closing, he inhaled deeply, and exhaled long and hard.
As quietly as possible, Pru packed up her medical supplies, dumping them into a sharps box. They would need to be sterilized as soon as she got home. That would leave her only a few hours to catch some sleep before she had to go back in for her evening shift. Wonder how many celebratory injuries we’ll get? Moon pies, cute guys, and one too many beers …. Right. She needed to come up with a plausible excuse for missing Leigh’s party. After sleep. Her brain would be working by then.
She pulled on her coat, buttoning and tying it closed over her stained, sweaty uniform. Gross, but salvageable.
Hefting her bag, she paused beside Senior. Even relaxed and on the edge of sleep, his face was still deeply lined; grooves bracketed his mouth and eyes. A scar ran along the side of his skull, curving down behind his ear. The chain of his dog tags stood out against the healed, puckered bite marks on the back of his neck.
She opened her mouth, closed it.
“Ready,” she finally said, voice catching.
His eyes opened and he studied her for a silent moment. Nodding, he heaved himself to his feet and escorted her to the door.
“Call Grandfather if there is any change in his condition: temperature spike, extreme thirstiness, unusual body aches, hallucinations. He can reach me, and I’ll be here as soon as possible. Otherwise ….”
Senior was nodding. He unbolted, unlatched, and unlocked the door, stepping over the salt line and onto the front porch. Pru followed, wincing as the low roar of celebration turned into loud music, cheers, and shouting. Front lawns up and down the street were filled with revelers, jostling and yelling and singing. Children with sparklers ran around, giggling and pointing up at the sky.
“Otherwise, we’ll be gone by this evening,” Senior finished. He bent to pluck a few snapdragons and violets from their pots. He braided their stems, turning to face her. He twined the flowers around a button on her coat, their combined scents mild and comforting. “And I hope we never meet again. Thank you for taking care of my boy.”
She offered her hand. “Sir, it’s been an honor.”
Holding her gaze, he shook her hand once. She could feel the calluses, and the slight tremor. “Doctor.”
Unlatching the screen door, she stepped over the salt line and down the stairs. She barely heard the sound of the latch catching behind her over the laughing and yelling. Weaving her way through the celebrants, some drunk on excitement, others on booze, she kept her head down. Pausing beside her car, she looked back towards 973 Marshall Street. Senior raised a hand and then turned away, disappearing back into the safe house.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her publications can be found there.]