AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is cross-posted at Steal Tomorrow.
Johnny wound the last bit of tape around the boy’s finger, securing the splint in place. “You’ll need to make sure this doesn’t get wet,” he said. “Do you have any rubber gloves or something like that?”
“My mom used to wear rubber gloves to wash the dishes.” The boy frowned. “But I don’t live there any more. And I don’t want to go back.”
Johnny recognized the look in the boy’s eyes. He had seen it a lot since the pandemic. Children who lost their families often couldn’t bear the memories associated with home. Sometimes it was more than just memories that sent them into the streets looking for new homes and new friendships. Many people had died where they fell ill, with no one to take them to a hospital or remove the body for burial afterwards.
With a small sigh, Johnny rummaged in a drawer and produced two latex gloves from his dwindling stash. “One for now, one for later if the first one gets torn. But be careful with these. And if you end up not needing the second one, bring it back.”
Johnny pulled a glove over the boy’s hand. The child’s fingers were so small that the latex fit neatly over the splint and Johnny had to secure the glove at the wrist with a rubber band. “You’re all set. How do you want to pay for this?”
“I’ve got to eat too, you know. Food, water, batteries…what do you have?”
The boy stared with round eyes. “Nothing. I’m hungry, too.”
This had been happening a lot lately. When Johnny had first set himself up in his mother’s old medical clinic, his young patients had been eager to pay. They had taken it as a given that no doctor would work for free, even one who was just shy of fifteen and working out of what he could read from books and remember from dinner table conversations. But Johnny had been too generous. He couldn’t bear to send an ill or injured child away just because he or she had nothing to offer. That wasn’t how he had been raised.
But things were different now. Supplies were becoming harder to find, more children needed his help, and now there was a violent new tribe on the scene, breaking into clinics and pharmacies, taking drugs for their own use and for barter. The Pharms had harassed Doc twice already and they had tied up supplies of many of the pain-killers and antibiotics he needed to do his work. Even if he could live off air like a Tillandsia plant, he still needed payment in order to barter with the Pharms.
Well, what was he going to do, break the boy’s finger again? “Go on,” he said. “Pay me when you can. But tell your friends I don’t work for free.”
The boy thanked him and hurried out the door, as if afraid Johnny might change his mind.
Johnny began tidying the room for the next patient, putting instruments and supplies back in their proper places, checking supplies, and wiping surfaces with bleach. He was writing in his notebook where he kept track of all his patients, treatments, and supplies, when a shadow in the doorway caught his attention.
The serious young man with the pistol on his hip didn’t look sick. Neither did the two armed boys behind him. Johnny jumped to his feet. “I’m not ready for my next patient, but if you’ll take a seat in the waiting room—”
“I’m not a patient.” The young man moved into the small room as if he owned it and stood assessing with critical eyes.
“Look, if you’re with the Pharms—”
“Nah.” He waved a hand. “My name is Reymundo Guzman Morales, but you can call me Mundo. I’m leader of the Regents and I need a house call. Are you the doctor?”
Johnny hesitated. Weren’t the Regents that group of kids who had taken over the Regency Hotel? He couldn’t recall what he had heard about them, but if it was something bad he surely would’ve remembered it. And they wanted a house call?
“I don’t do house calls. Why can’t you bring your patient here?”
“Too dangerous.” When Johnny gave him a skeptical look over the tops of his glasses, Mundo added, “It’s a pregnant girl, and I don’t want her out on the streets where she might get hurt.”
“I don’t know anything about pregnancy. Sorry.”
Mundo sighed and a note of vulnerability crept into his voice. “Look, Doc, we’ve got goods. We can pay.”
Johnny scanned Mundo’s face as he considered.
“Please?” Mundo ran a hand through his hair and looked at the ground. “Don’t make me have to kidnap you. I want my kid born healthy. Just tell me what you want.”
Now Johnny understood and for a moment he forgot that he didn’t know a thing about babies and had only the sketchiest understanding of female anatomy. This was an opportunity. A tribal leader with goods and armed guards needed him and was willing to let him name his price. “I need supplies,” Johnny said. “And protection from the Pharms. Every time I find a new source of meds, they show up and take them. Give me barter goods and a guard, and I’ll—”
To his surprise, Mundo shook his head. “I haven’t got enough guards to spare. The Regency Hotel is huge, or haven’t you ever been there? I can’t spare anyone to hang around here waiting to shoot a Pharm.”
“I can’t help you, then.”
The guards behind Mundo shuffled their feet, while Mundo sized Johnny up through narrowed eyes. “What are you really after, Doc? If you just want to practice medicine in peace, I can set you up in one of our ballrooms. You’ll have food, supplies from our forage runs, and guard protection twenty-four-seven.” When Johnny hesitated, he added, “You’re not particularly attached to this place, are you?”
Johnny looked around. He knew each wall chart, supply cabinet, and treatment room they were his own. Even the coffee-stained china cups in the break room were as familiar as his own name. He had been brought here as a baby so his mother could show him off to her co-workers. He had come here as a toddler and colored quietly under the receptionist’s watchful eye when his mother couldn’t get day care. He had listened to all the nurse and patient chatter, then quizzed his mother and father at the dinner table, always wanting to know more. How did antibiotics work? Why do you splint broken fingers but not broken toes? Johnny wanted to know it all and he forgot little. Yes, he was attached to this place. But he remembered the boy he had treated a few minutes ago and brought himself back to reality. There was something else his parents taught him about medicine, and it was more important than a mere building.
Johnny lifted his chin. “If you want me for a private physician, forget it. Go on and shoot me, if that’s what you think you need to do. But if you’re offering me a real clinic where I can treat anyone who needs me, I’ll do it.”
A smile broke over Mundo’s face and he stuck out his hand. “It’s a deal.”
They shook on it and discussed the particulars of what Johnny, who Mundo insisted on calling “Doc,” would need. They agreed on a moving date, and then with a clatter of boots on the hard stone floors, Mundo and his guards left.
In the silence that followed, Johnny looked around. Nothing had changed, yet everything had. He picked up his pen and notebook, but didn’t know what to write. He ran his hand across a stack of brochures about diabetes and colitis, but couldn’t think what to do with them. He contemplated a chart of the major muscle groups. That would be useful. He would need to take that with him.
At a small sound in the doorway, Johnny looked up in alarm. A girl with dirty feet and ragged braids stared at him, then coughed again. “Are you—?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “I’m the doctor.”
“I can’t—I mean, I don’t have—” she held out her empty hands.
“It’s okay,” Johnny told her. “I’ve got a patron now. No one needs to pay me any more.”