CHAPTER: Dr. X and Dr. Y
RATING: R for language and themes (gen fic)
WARNINGS: Aftermath isn't always pretty; may distress some readers.
SUMMARY: Chapter three of three in the epilogue to Aftershocks: A Story in Shattered Pieces.
DISCLAIMER: Don't own 'em. Never will.
AUTHOR NOTES: Word count for this chapter is ~2500 words.
Reelfoot Rift is a major seismic zone that covers parts of five U.S. states: Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
The zone had four of the largest North American earthquakes in recorded history, with magnitude estimates of 7.0 to 7.9 on the Richter scale, all occurring within a 3 month period between 1811 and 1812. Hundreds of aftershocks followed, including nine events of magnitude greater than 5.0.
In 1974, instruments were installed in and around the area to closely monitor seismic activity. Since then, more than 4,000 earthquakes have been recorded. On average, one earthquake per year is large enough to be felt.
Scientists anticipate that more significant seismic events will occur in the future in Reelfoot Rift.
Reelfoot Rift: Dr. X and Dr. Y
Tracy smiles for what seems like the hundredth time today at the eager young doctor in front of her. “So those are our current facilities,” he says as they arrive at the nurses’ desk. “We have a lot to offer, but there’s just so much more that we could do.”
“And that’s what the fun fair is all about?” she prompts, gesturing discreetly toward the elevator.
He nods happily and trots toward the elevator button. Tracy follows, carefully keeping her sighs silent. Dr. Patel looks like he ought to be a student tour leader at a college, not an attending at one of the major teaching hospitals in the state.
“Raising money is an important part of it, of course,” he says as they head down to the first floor. “But it’s also a chance for the kids we have here as patients to have some fun – you know, hence the name.” He grins gleefully at her, and she feels obligated to smile for the hundred and first time.
“Oh, and there’s another important part, too,” he continues as they – finally – arrive at the lawn, which is covered with rides, games, a clown and jugglers, and dozens, if not hundreds, of children. Tracy has to jump to one side as a tow-headed boy of about six barrels past, and then has to jump to the other side as a bald girl wheels recklessly by.
“The last important part, the one I’m most excited about,” Dr. Patel says, as he waves to a group of teenage girls, “is an opportunity for kids from the community to see that the patients we have here are just like them. Well, sicker, of course, but in all other respects, normal kids, ones they could be friends with.”
He nods toward the girls, who are checking out a nearby booth and giggling. “Mara there, the one with the green shirt on, has been recovering from some complications of diabetes. She actually was cleared to go home yesterday with her new insulin pump, but begged to stay another day so she and the friends she’s met here in Princeton could go to the fair together.”
“Everyone seems to be having a great time,” Tracy says. She brings her pad out and makes a few notes. “So this was the brainchild of your department head, right? Dr. –”
“Dr. Wilson. James Wilson. And, no.” Dr. Patel catches himself and smiles sheepishly. “Not that he hasn’t been supportive! He has, the whole way, with getting it approved and funding and so on. He’s even taking a turn running some of the booths today. But the idea, not to be immodest or anything, was mine.”
“Of course,” Tracy says reassuringly, and smiles for the hundred and second time.
Things are working out nicely. She’s been tracking down Dr. Wilson and his still-roommate Dr. Greg House. Tim might have preferred to leave them as Dr. Y and Dr. X, but Tracy pieced together the clues and followed them to this hospital. She has plenty of background on their careers, the news reports of the mugging ten years ago, and all their publicly available records. She even knows a little about their social lives – Dr. Wilson is quite a favorite of a particular photographer of charity benefits. Dr. House, on the other hand, is more elusive, or maybe simply camera-shy.
By talking a local paper into giving her a freelance assignment to cover this event, she has an excellent excuse to get closer to them without having to approach directly. It’s perfect.
“Dr. Patel, I know you must be busy,” she says. “Why don’t I take some time to look around alone? You know, blend in with the crowd, watch some of the games?”
“Sure, excellent,” he replies. “I should check on how everyone’s doing. In fact, speaking of Dr. Wilson, I think it’s his turn in the kissing booth next.”
“Kissing booth?” She can’t keep the surprise out of her voice; it seems such a strange anachronism.
Dr. Patel laughs. “Blowing kisses only, I assure you! The children we have here really get attached to doctors and nurses, develop friendly crushes, that kind of thing, and this is one cute way for them to feel special. The way the booth works is fascinating, really. Jacobsen, one of our techs, brought the idea to me, and I knew right away that the kids would love it.
“You’ve seen t-shirts that change color in the sun, right? They have the same technology for stickers. Right before the kiss is blown, we give a blank sticker a little dose of concentrated UV and then put it on the child’s cheek or hand. The kiss then ‘magically’ shows up, and the child can wear it around proudly.”
Tracy nods and makes a few notes. It is a cute premise. She gives Dr. Patel a minute or so to get ahead of her, then follows him from a distance to see the mechanism in action.
When Dr. Patel reaches the booth (the s’s are backward in the sign; how quaint), he immediately greets the couple standing to the side: a tall brown-haired man in a lab coat and a warm, friendly-looking woman in her forties. The man turns – he’s silvering elegantly at the temples – and puts his stiff, slightly curled left hand on Dr. Patel’s shoulder briefly, drawing him into their conversation.
Dr. Wilson. He looks different in person. It’s the way he moves, she decides, slightly more stiffly than the easy smile in pictures leads one to assume.
The woman with them laughs loudly, throwing her head back and holding Dr. Wilson’s arm for support. It’s not a beautiful laugh by any means, but the smile on Dr. Wilson’s face grows wider. Tracy’s seen the woman before, in two or three of the more recent benefit pictures: “Dr. James Wilson of Princeton-Plainsboro, joined this evening by Ms. Jennifer Frayman.”
Tracy has discovered that Ms. Frayman is a part-time accountant, on the board of a few charities, and fifteen-years divorced from Efram Frayman, one of the wealthiest ophthalmologic surgeons in the U.S. She gives away more money in a year than Tracy makes.
Until this book finds its market, of course.
She wasn’t planning on writing a book; nobody she knows reads books. But it turns out that more than a few of the people she wants to know – podcast creative producers – do read books.
Former mass medium has become the niche medium to pitch to the mass media. An interesting circle there.
“He’s gay,” a voice intones from a foot above her ear.
“Dr. Wilson?” she replies, without thinking, pulling back to try to get out of the shadow of the man standing way too close to her.
He smirks like he knows her every secret. “Patel. Engaged to a plumber named Morty. I didn’t think plumbers named Morty even existed any more, but Patel found one and bagged him. Wilson, on the other hand, is straight, although also very much taken.”
“Well, good for him.” She has the sneaking suspicion that she sounds sassy, which just won’t do. Professional is always the way to go. “I’m covering this event for the Princeton Packet. Is your child a patient here, Mister –?” He looks more like a grandfather than a father, between the cane, the weather-beaten face, and the more-salt-than-pepper hair, but it never hurts to be polite.
He ignores the hint to give his name. “No children. None I’ve been informed of, anyway. So you’re a journalist. What’s your name, intrepid girl reporter?”
“No, it’s not. One, because you’re not an occasionally funny black actor pushing fifty, and two, because Morgan doesn’t start with ‘McK,’ which is what’s visible on the press badge sticking out of your pocket.”
Children are laughing, popcorn with what might be actual butter is being sold, and Dr. Wilson is blowing kisses to a pair of giggling toddlers.
Tracy looks up into extraordinarily blue eyes and hears, “Hello, Tracy McKinney, I’m Greg House. Now that you’ve spent two weeks stalking me on the ’net, do you mind telling me what you want?”
“Martin Grey,” her tongue replies, and she immediately wants to cut it out. She’s a professional; she’s going to make a mark on the world, but she’s never going to get that accomplished if she doesn’t start acting like a professional and guiding conversations instead of reacting carelessly.
“No, you don’t,” Dr. House responds even more quickly. Maybe she’s not the only one moving on instinct here.
She takes a moment to watch his eyes, the way they’re investigating her face even as they flick every few seconds to the booth with the backward s’s. “Why does everyone say that to me?” she finally asks.
“Who’s everyone? Have you been trying to check out Martin the way you’ve been checking out me?”
“Not saying it’s me, but how do you know someone’s watching you on the internet?”
“Gumshoe: Track the people cyber-tracking you,” he replies. “Handy new service run by a cranky old woman; gets the job done. Answer the question; it’s important.”
“I’m doing an extended story on a certain mob enforcer. Mr. Grey’s name came up. I talked to another, um, colleague, and he said what you said: not to pursue Mr. Grey.”
“Was he about my age?”
He nods. “That explains the warning then. Men my age like pretty young things to stay pretty.”
“I’m not pretty.”
“Pfft. You are now, but you won’t be if you find Martin. Have you talked to anyone else about him? Looked for him on the Web?”
Dr. House blows out a sigh in something that might be relief. She can’t figure where that came from. “Good,” he says.
“You know, that kind of warning usually entices journalists to push forward, to find the story underneath.”
“Then usually journalists are stupid. You don’t look stupid.”
“Excellent. Then I don’t have to threaten to sue you for libel if you mention my name or the name of anyone else associated with this hospital in your story.”
“Lawsuit? Not going to insinuate I’ll meet with an accident?”
Tilting his head, he says, “You don’t look accident-prone.”
“But Tim was?”
Dr. House stares at her for a long moment; she holds his gaze.
“An isolated case," he says gravely. “Chance meeting. And… an accident. Not going to happen again.”
Tone, expression, stance: he’s telling the truth, as best he knows it. Tracy waits for a beat; nothing changes.
“Tim had a lot of fascinating tales to tell,” she informs him. There are so many things happening around the fun fair, so many things to see. “The lighter fluid one didn’t make the top ten. I’m not even going to write it up, much less try to find actual names to go with it.”
Dr. House stares at her for a very long moment; she watches two kids wriggle through the grass toward a stand of clover.
“I’m not going to argue your decision,” he says. “Of course not. But true-crime always sells, and revenge on true-crime, that’s the oldest best-seller there is.”
The kids are about ten inches away from the clover when it explodes in a flurry of wings. Butterflies, here, there and everywhere, and the two children roll with laughter.
“So there’s a personal reason you don’t want to expose that angle,” he says speculatively. “Not child abuse; the children here aren’t making you wistful or angry. Not a physical attack, I don’t think; no lingering physical sign, and my looming hasn’t intimidated you one bit more than I meant it to.”
The roving clown has switched from balloon animals to balloon hats. Those seem to be much more popular.
“Sexual assault?” Dr. House asks quietly, so that only the two of them can hear. “As a child or teenager. Every time your gaze hits the kissing booth your face twitches.”
Tracy looks at her toes. They’re safely inside her sensible walking shoes, but she knows they need a pedicure. “My sister,” she says. “Date-raped after our county fair, the summer she turned fourteen. She wanted to kiss him, go to second base, and he didn’t want to stop there. Nobody believed her, and my parents couldn’t move, and we had to see him all the time for two years until he left for college. He never thought he did anything wrong.”
It’s been eight years since she saw that punk’s detested face, and she could still describe it well enough for an artist to draw. There was no retribution for them, no recompense, but it’s OK. Sarah’s doing fine; they’re both fine; it’s behind them.
When she looks up at Dr. House, there is absolutely no pity in his face, only an assessment of her sincerity. The knowledge that he understands provides a relief colder and sweeter than lemonade.
He looks down at his feet, head bobbing. “Not you, a sister. Of course; fits better. I should’ve known, but maybe I’m slowing down in my old age. In my dodderage. In the sunset years –” He looks at her again suddenly, a smirk on his lips. “You’re supposed to be disagreeing with me here.”
She shrugs, and gives him a genuine smile, and tosses her hair back because he called her pretty. She’s a professional, and she also knows when the day’s work is done.
“I think I’ve seen enough at the fair,” she says. “Give my best to Dr. Wilson.”
“Yeah,” he says, with a nod toward the booth. “Wilson’s already getting someone’s best.”
When she looks over Ms. Frayman is planting kiss stickers on Dr. Wilson’s cheeks, right above his wide grin.
“I’m the one who needs the best,” Dr. House protests grumpily, and then his attention is thoroughly distracted by the posterior of a young blonde woman walking by. Tracy doesn’t bother to say goodbye.
When she looks back from several yards away, Dr. House has joined Dr. Wilson and Ms. Frayman at the booth. He’s waving his arms and protesting, but Dr. Wilson overpowers him and suddenly there is a large bright-pink lip-print in the middle of Dr. House’s forehead. Peals of high laughter break out, along with smirks on the adults’ faces. Dr. House is threatening Dr. Wilson with bodily harm, but their shoulders still bump companionably as Dr. Wilson keeps Dr. House from attempting to peel off the sticker.
Tracy gets to a quiet, far removed patio – the fun fair barely in sight – before stopping. She’ll write up the event story tonight; Dr. Patel actually gave her a good hook with the local-kids aspect. The Packet should like that.
Tomorrow it’s back to the larger story, the real one. A few more points of Tim’s to verify, a few more victims to interview. This investigation has been exciting (and is going to be very rewarding) but also very stressful. Reluctantly, she pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket. She’s going on the nicotine patch as soon as the final word is written, but for now she needs this. Except her lighter’s gone – must have dropped it somewhere. Damn.
“Excuse me, sir,” she says to a nearby man who’s smoking.
When he turns toward her, his grey eyes are amused and almost paternal. “Yes?”
She holds up the pack apologetically and asks, “Could I have a light?”
He shifts his cigarette – which is black; interesting – to the other hand and then pulls out a beautiful silver lighter. “My pleasure.”