The Doctor. (first of a series of apocalyptic short stories)
Waking in the silent emptiness of my room my eyes adjust to a shimmering form. I see water cascading down sunlit rocks. This time it is a woman that waits. I watch her bathing in the mottled light of the pool below the falls. I’m disturbed to see her limpid back and arms disfigured by an angry cross work of scars. She is still young, mid-thirties I’d guess.
They are pioneers. It is a glimpse of a time yet to come upon the earth. “They,” for a man has come to call her, his clothes rough and old, hair dark and unkempt, his face shaded with stubble. There is a dog. No, two dogs. He’s been hunting, rabbits hang over his shoulder and he holds a rifle…
Now I see a hut, rough made of logs and timber. In some places leaves and branches still stick out, like it was raised in a hurry by someone not too adept at the job.
He watches as she emerges from the water his passion for her warring with his anger for those scars that mar her beauty. He turns his head as she reaches for her clothes. She seems more at ease with the scars like she no longer harbors anger. I sense they have not been together long. I want to see their story.
Like hitting a rewind button, scenes flash before my eyes.
He was gone when they blew up the house. It was not till later when he was returning that the story began…
A man jumped in front of the car frantically waving. Dan thumped on the brakes. What on earth??
“You can’t go back!” Robert yelled, his face contorting against the half open window. “They are all dead. You have to flee.”
“What are you talking about?” Dan stuttered, “Who’s dead?” Dan had seen plenty of death, but the next words tore his world to shreds.
“Mary and the kids! They’re dead! You can’t help them. I saw the bodies! You’ve got to go!” Tears of desperation were running down his friends face. Dan couldn’t move. He sat stunned, his mouth agape.
Taking matters into his own hands Rob reached in pushing him aside to take control of the vehicle. Dan was in shock; he could do nothing. Robert hastily stuck the car into reverse edging into a nearby driveway to turn.
Dan slowly came to his senses.
“But why? I’m a doctor, why would they kill my family.”
“It was you they were after.” His friend said grimly. “Don’t give them the pleasure of taking you, head for the hills!”
“But my family? I must go back maybe…?” Dan reached to grab the wheel.
“You cannot help them now!” Rob hissed as he pushed him away trying to keep control of the vehicle. “They are dead I tell you! I saw it! I saw their bodies! You must believe me! If you go back now it will all be for nothing!” Robert was almost screaming in desperation.
Dan recoiled, defeated by the intensity of his friend’s eyes. Robert spoke the truth. His mind numbed once more as, tears streaming down his cheeks, he gazed out of the window at the blackness of passing streets, his heart frozen in disbelief.
“Try and pull yourself together man,” Robert said, his own voice raspy. “There’s nothing you could have done. You can grieve later. Right now you need to get out of here. I shouldn’t be here. I have a family of my own to worry about!” The last statement got through to Dan. Robert was putting his own life and family on the line to warn him. His inert body churned into motion.
“Thanks Rob!” he said putting his hand on his friends arm, his voice oddly cool. “You can pull in here. I can take over now. You need to get back before curfew. You need to get back … to your family…” his voice broke as fresh tears streamed.
Robert looked up gratefully, guiding the car into the curb. It was late and the roads deserted, hopefully no one had seen him…
“You’ll come?” The Dan asked grabbing Robert’s sleeve. “You won’t stay here!”
“No,” his friend said quietly, “but I can’t go without Alice and the kids.”
“Of course not.”
“Where will you head?”
“I don’t know. I can’t think too much just now.”
“If you’ll take my advice you’ll head south, up into the hills,” Robert whispered as he bundled out of the driver’s seat, “there’s more chance to hide there.”
Dan nodded in dazed agreement as his friend sped off into the blackness. There were no street lights just the gentle glow of candles from within the curtained windows. Reaching forward Dan turned off the headlights, better play it safe he reasoned. Edging along the road in a cloud of blackness he was thankful for the moonlight and the full tank of gas he always kept for the medical emergencies that had become part of his life of late. His calm exterior belied by the fire of rage within.
His mind, now cold and calculating, kicked in. He’d need supplies, bullets, (like most he carried a rifle in the boot) and enough gasoline to get him up in the mountains, then what? He made a mental list carefully checking off each item. He checked his wallet. He still had a wad of notes used in his black market dealings. No one would take them here but once he was out of the city he might find a place. His eyes flashed to his medical card.
“No, too risky!” He told himself it would be a complete give away. He cursed that he had not replenished his bag before leaving.
Finding a much neglected gas station happy to take the contraband bank notes he stocked up well. Having gotten clear of the major cities he abandoned the car, leaving the keys in the dash and a little gas in the tank in hopes someone would take advantage and drive it to some other location to hide his trail. The remaining can of gasoline together with his other supplies he hauled into the wilderness on his improvised medical trolley.
At the hospital there had been generators, to cope with the frequent power cuts but then most of his work had no longer been at the hospital. That was what had brought all this upon him. Why had he not just done as they said? Why did he have to go helping those not approved for medical aid? Why had he done it? He never thought they would go so far…
Resolutely he set his face to the slope above him. Day had long dawned and a drizzly rain began to fall as he edged his way up the foot path…
Years have passed, his skin is now tanned and weather-beaten, the soft surgeons hands grown calloused and hard, like his heart. He keeps to himself gleaning his needs from the surrounding woods and the occasional abandoned vehicle – others, not as lucky as him. He had gotten out early, knew already the places to hide. He had watched the exodus from the cities wash upon the lower slopes of the hills, watched the gunships come and mow them down… Some had escaped, running like rabbits for some bolt hole, but most were dead or rounded up in the camps. His sacrifice had been for nothing, the lives he’d once saved were now encased in wire and prison bars while the elite grew fat on ill-gotten gain. In his heart bitterness and hate have out grown their casement, their evil vines entrapping his mind and eyes till his soul is dead to the wild beauty that surrounds him.
It had been a good days hunting. His precious bullets had all but run out long ago like much else but there had been time to adapt, time to carve his bow and learn to use it with precision, time to acquire the art of trapping to find where the autumn berries grew best, where the salmon spawned, how nettles and doc could be harvested. His frame was lean but well-muscled, his sinews strong and subtle. He sought quietly through the undergrowth for his last trap.
His eye stayed, riveted. Tell-tale drops of blood told a story on the rugged tufts of grass, instantly alert his gaze swept the earth. It seemed some large beast had dragged its self along the forest path, but what? … too small for a bear, too large for a deer. Stealthy he followed the scarlet trail and scattered soil.
A body appeared, a scarlet heap of wretched humanity, the earth and fauna forming a small circle of blood drenched color amidst the green! They must have dragged themselves from the camp he realized. He had seen the cloud of flies that dwelt on the decomposing heap where the dead were stacked before being tossed into the pits that silently swallowed them. But this one had not been dead. This one had survived. Anger surged in his breast as he approached the macabre form. It was a woman.
His breath caught in surprise as he perceived a slight rise to her chest, a flutter of life. Quickly he bent down to check her pulse. She was alive! bloody, exhausted, but still alive! Glancing around he grabbed her up in his arms. He dared not go directly back but veered through the course of a nearby stream to mask his tracks. The torturous course of her journey was clear for any to read, if they bothered that was. They probably assumed her dead as she soon would have been had he not found her.
She was amazingly light, skin and bones for the most part, even so he was exhausted by the time he stopped. “Home” was little more than an arrangement of branches set against a log swung between two trees, a very simple affair easily dismantled when he moved on choosing not to settle in one place too long.
Her eyes flickered open for just a moment as he set her down, registering his face. Grabbing the pan of broth from his morning meal he tried to spoon a little between her lips, but she had succumbed once more to unconsciousness. Better so he thought bleakly coaxing a tiny flame to rekindle the fire and setting a pan of fresh water to boil. The wounds were fresh and caked in dirt and soil from her passage. It would be a miracle if they were not infected. He cursed his lack of medical supplies.
Sponging the worst of the debris from her wounds with an old cloth he kept looking at her face, miraculously unmarred. It had been a while since he saw a woman. “How could they? How could they he stormed! They are not men but beasts, not fit to live!” Anger raged within. He knew of the camp and what they did there.
His hard calloused hands took pains to be gentle. Her eyes opened again as her face contorted in pain.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I must clean your wounds or they’ll get infected. I’m sorry I don’t have anything for the pain…” his voice trailed off.
She inclined her head in acknowledgement then slipped back into oblivion.
Dan wrung his hands in anguish feeling helpless. The fever was mounting. He looked down at her weak, flushed face, all eyes, staring sightless at he knew not what. Her hands burned like fire at his touch. There was only one chance to save her. He bit at his knuckles. “Better not risk it,” he told himself. “Let her die, what is she to you anyway?” He turned away. Then cursing grabbed his rifle and the two rabbits hanging from the branch. Would they be enough? They’d have to be! Sliding down the hill in the gathering darkness he cursed his humanity. Why hadn’t he left her there? She’d die anyway. They’d all die sooner or later. What was the use? …
It took hours to reach the camp, they would be asleep by now, watching only those locked within in their long cabins and barred windows. He remembered when it was built. He thought it must be an army camp till they put up the barbed wire. He thought it a prison and worried less. Then he saw them come in their hundreds, women children, young and old, some barely able to stagger off the buses and trucks, others tied or chained together. It was far too many he reasoned; how could they be housed and fed? It became obvious as a northern wintery wind blew the foul answer on the breeze. It was not a prison camp but a death camp. Here far from prying eyes they slowly disappeared transformed into mounds, the new hills long overgrown with moss and wild flowers covering their gruesome secrets. Why she had been beaten and left for dead instead of their usual more effective methods he did not know, but he could guess – men were ever men and she had been beautiful. A tear trickled rebelliously down his cheek a tear forbidden many years since when his heart had been transformed to stone, when he had ceased to care or so he told himself.
The camp was in sight now. He’d been here before, knew where the pharmacy was, watched the doctors go in and out. They did not watch the perimeter. Who would ever want to enter such a place? He dug furtively at the earth below the fence. It was just wire here. He kept the rabbits close. He had seen dogs patrolling.
Gingerly he lowered himself under the wire, his breathing hard from tension. Like a shadow he bounded across the yard to the medical shed. The door was locked but the window opened easily. He slipped inside groping in the darkness. If only he had a torch. His hand hit something, matches. Yes of course they must have matches. He knew all about generators, doctors would always have a backup. Cautiously lighting a match shielded by his trembling hand he spotted the candle close by. Above it shone a glass cupboard. Quickly he perused it. He was tempted to take more, but it would be missed he told himself. One jar could be misplaced, they wouldn’t worry about one jar, but if he took more…
He glanced around the empty courtyard. All was clear. His eyes rested on the cabins beyond. In a sudden surge of compassion he wished he might free some within those chained buildings. He must not push his luck he reminded himself, enough he got the medicine.
As he dove back out of the window he heard a sniffing sound. Untying the rabbits he held them out in the darkness glimpsing an approaching shadow. A howl erupted as a second dog appeared. He tossed the rabbits and bolted for the hole. The dogs, diverted by the fresh meat, began to scuffle. A light went on in one of the huts. A door opened as Dan crawled breathless under the fence lying still and flat against the hole. He watched as a small circle of torchlight flickered over the bickering dogs. A laugh broke the silence.
“They got a rabbit, that’s all,” a voice boomed into the darkness. “Get back to bed.” The door closed, the light went out. Sweating with relief, the tiny bottle safe in his pocket, Dan recovered the hole and headed back.
It was almost morning when he staggered to her side. She was burning with fever. He quickly put two capsules into her mouth raising her up to sip some water. She spluttered and one of the capsules spilt its contents on the floor. He muttered a curse and took another.
“Slowly,” he told himself. Having accomplished his task he lay down to rest, there was no more he could do. Exhaustion swept over him like a blanket of forgetfulness. He slept long, so long, right through the day and into the night shattered from the stress of his intense journey. Stirring from his sleep he sensed a movement. A hand reached out brushing his beard as a weak voice whispered, “thank you.”
Dan was up in a moment lighting the lamp, a remnant of his medical days when the failing electricity would go off at the most inconvenient times. He lit it carefully, matches and oil were valuable; he never knew when opportunity would serve to get more. His task accomplished he looked down at his patient. The fever was down and a weak smile graced her lips. Quickly grasping the opportunity he poured a cup of water and placed another capsule on her tongue motioning her to swallow it. He gently raised her head a little so she could sip the water. He felt her hand grip his arm. Her eyes looked up in thankfulness though she could speak no more.
He lay awhile awake looking up between the woven branches and rough tarpaulin of his shelter. He must build something better, soon cold weather might come and rain for sure. She needed somewhere safe and dry if she was to recover; he would start tomorrow…
The scene shifts to sometime later. The shack is built (though the tarp. still serves as the only roof). He is helping her to walk outside. She smiles at him in appreciation. She can talk now and the cloths and bandages are off her wounds. The leaves are yellow and the wind cool. She sits on a rock to see the work. He drapes a blanket around her shoulders and hands her a mug of hot broth. Her eyes still hold shadows of black, signals of her brush with death but she is stronger, her emancipated frame now animated by a lively smile. She touches him affectionately but he does not respond, afraid to let love back into his life, afraid to feel.
I see him now alone in the woods, angry again. He roars out a great bellow of frustration as his axe crashes into a tree. His body has grown strong and muscular from his outdoor lifestyle, but within his heart still bleeds. Angrily he throws down the ax, he can bare it no longer…
She was up and about now cooking on the outside stone hearth, a blanket artfully tied about her against the cold. She looked up and smiled as she saw him coming from the woods.
As he drew closer she sensed it. Something was wrong. She’d seen that look before but never on Dan.
Gasping she set down the pot and turned to run – too late. Grabbing her by the arm he forced her inside, flinging her on the bed, his arms like steel vices pinning her down beneath him. She did not resist, she knew better, gritting her teeth, preparing her body for the coming assault.
“What had happened? Why? Why should he do this?” she screamed within, “He had been so kind and gentle to her.” But in her heart, she had always known, something lurked within him, some dark, hidden demon.
Lips forced their way over her mouth, hard, intrusive as he ripped at the blanket. She knew not to fight; she’d learnt that long ago at the camp. Pulling back to look at her exposed breasts he encountered her eyes, shocked, hurt, fearful.
Anger melted away as, like a lanced balloon, he collapsed, his body imprisoning her. Enormous sobs broke forth forcing open the bowls of his heart. He raised his head, tears streaming.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered, “so sorry… I don’t know what made me do it. I fought so long against it. Now you will never forgive me.”
She leant forward. “I understand,” she whispered, “I do.”
“How could you understand!” he yelled back, the anger rising again.
“They hurt you,” she said simply, “just like they hurt me, only your scars are on the inside.”
He looked down at her in astonishment.
“Let me heal you as you have healed me,” she whispered. He rested once more on her shoulder a torrent of unshed tears finding outlet.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” she whispered, “We’ll make it together; we’ll heal each other.” Slowly, softly she began to kiss his face undoing his shirt and pulling it from his shoulders. “You’re a good man,” she whispered. “I know you are a good man, you’ve just been hurt real bad, like me, but I love you. I won’t let it devour you, I won’t!” He reached down to cradle her face and kiss her, this time soft and gentle. She sighed audibly.
“See,” she said, “Love is worth fighting for.”
The picture pans out again. I see years pass, the final destruction of the cities, the return of peace. They are still at the shack but now it has a roof and a lean to area for cooking. There’s a child, a young toddler with rosy cheeks and his mother’s smile. Their clothes are still basic, the furniture rough hewn, but the doctor’s face is different, he has caught the woman’s smile his scars are healed.