by Nora B. Peevy
Finished setting up for the meeting, Brenda studied the painting hung behind the massive oak conference table, absently pulling her long hair back into a ponytail. In a large, garish frame stood four men, three gaunt and sallow-eyed and one quite well fed with an impish twinkle in his eye and a cherubic smile. They were all dressed in severe black topcoats and cravats, sporting expensive watch fobs with their glittering chains hanging from their suit pockets. She read the brass plate on the bottom of the frame: In memory of the founding doctors of County Hospital, Dr. Humphreys, Dr. Braeburn, Dr. Faulkings, and Dr. Wilkenstein.
"Admiring our lovely forefathers?" a friendly voice asked behind her.
Startled, Brenda turned to see Maria, her mentor. "Oh, you scared me." She held one hand to her chest. It was her first day as the H.R. receptionist. She needed the career experience after college and hoped to get a good recommendation after finishing her temp assignment. Maria was tolerable to Keith, Brenda’s boss. Brenda didn’t like him. At least, she didn’t have to see him very much, since she worked under Maria’s guidance.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to sneak up on you." Maria sipped her coffee.
"Were the founding doctors in practice here long?"
"No. It’s a tragic story, really. The doctors disappeared from a train while traveling to the East Coast for a medical conference. They were rumored to be working on a very important research project, something to do with the science of aging in the human body, but unfortunately, none of their records were ever recovered."
A charming voice interrupted their conversation. "Hello, Maria." The charming voice was attached to a round little man.
Maria shook Mr. Braeburn’s hand in greeting and introduced him to Brenda.
"Is Maria treating you well, my dear?" he asked, shaking her hand.
Brenda wanted to pry her fingers from the man’s chilly grip, but out of politeness, took his hand and replied, "Yes, thank you, Mr. Braeburn. Are you related to the Dr. Braeburn?"
"Oh, no, no," he answered, shaking his head. "It’s purely a coincidence." He gave Brenda a wink and a warm smile. Did she suspect something? He was going to keep an eye on this pretty, young one.
"Well, you certainly bear a striking resemblance," Brenda gestured towards the painting.
"Brenda, would you run down and copy this packet?" Maria licked her lips and handed her a thick stack of papers, raising a steely eyebrow towards Mr. Braeburn.
Brenda, not happy to be playing copy girl again this morning, reminded herself this position was only temporary until she gained enough job experience to apply elsewhere. When she returned to the conference room loaded down with packets like a pack mule, everyone else was already seated. Maria and Keith, Brenda’s boss, were sitting at the head of the conference table with three very sober and distinguished gentlemen. Brenda glanced around for an empty chair, circulating the packets.
"I'd like you to meet our Board of Directors, Mr. Braeburn," Maria said, as Mr. Braeburn winked and wiggled his fingers, "And Doctors, Humphreys, Faulkings, and Wilkenstein." The trio of grave drawn faces nodded as one.
"It’s nice to meet all of you." A sudden chill slithered down her neck to the tips of her toes as she took the only empty seat and rubbed her arms, wondering if the three doctors were relatives of the missing founders. They bore a striking resemblance to the men in the painting also.
Dr. Wilkenstein addressed Brenda with a clinical smile that barely reached his eyes, "You should have brought a sweater with you, young Brenda. Hospitals can be quite cold year round." He thought of the girl as a subordinate peon and did not wait for her reply, turning his attention instead, to the packet of papers before him.
"Shall we begin our meeting," Maria asked, breaking the awkward silence as Brenda frowned and bit her lip, fidgeting in her chair. "We have a lot to cover in the next fifty minutes," she added when no one spoke, checking her watch.
For the better part of an hour, Brenda's stomach growled. When she was finally released from her gastro-intestinal torture, she was sent back, against her innards loud protest, to her filing, waiting for one of the H.R. people to return from their lunch break and relieve her.
She came across Dr. Faulkings' file while she involuntarily starved, and scanned the pages. Medical leave at least twice a year for the past decade? Why didn't they just retire the old coot, if he was so ill? He certainly couldn't be doing that much for the hospital in his current state of health.
Brenda caught a flash of Maria’s red suit out of the corner of her eye, and quickly closed the file as her mentor passed her desk without a word of acknowledgement and closed the door to her office.
After lunch, Brenda returned to the fifth level of H.R. hell, feeling much better and filing records faster than the county morgue collected bodies. Human curiosity got the better of bored intellect, and she snuck a peek at a stack of employee files. Gretchen Wilson, age twenty-six, out on medical leave last October. She grabbed the next file -- Nathan Grodey -- medical leave. And the next. Stacey Rivera had been out on medical leave twice. Hans Friedman, Tori Channing, the list of employees on medical leave grew. County Hospital had won the lottery in sick employees and all of them had been organ donors last year too. Strange.
At five o'clock, very much relieved, she activated the voicemail for the department and left work on autopilot, her mind lost in a fog of green files as she walked the ten long blocks to her apartment on the Upper East Side. A toe-biting wind settled in from the lakefront and Brenda was glad to reach her building. Fortunately, food, a hot shower, and sleep were only two flights away. Unfortunately, it was her roommate’s turn to do the dishes, and Brenda had a better chance of marrying Satan’s cousin than she did of getting her flighty roommate to wash dishes. (Meghan was quiet and generous, just not very neat.) Brenda stepped into a clean kitchen and blinked. The dishes were piled in the drainer, wet, and miraculously, clean. She dropped her shoulder bag on a chair.
"Rough day?" Meghan slouched at the table, munching a bag of Cheetos.
"Yeah. Did you get dinner by any chance?" She was hoping to bum a meal and then just crash.
"There’s some cold pizza in the fridge." Meghan’s green eyes peered over the top of her magazine. Her bright orange nails looked stark and plastic against the glossy cover.
"Another conspiracy zine?" Brenda scanned the title: The Truth About Lies.
Meghan turned a page as her roommate plopped down with the pizza box, popping open a soda and sliding another can across the table to her. Meghan opened the soda and took a long sip. "There’s an article in here you might like about this kooky scientist. He’s been working on some top secret military project since 1992."
"Really?" Brenda gave her roommate half an ear, too tired to concentrate on an intellectual conversation. Her toes screamed to be released from their cages of black patent leather and her neck ached.
"You remember a couple years ago how they had the rat in the news that scientists grew an ear on? Well, he claims technology is so far advanced they can remove part of a person’s organ, any organ, and clone a whole new one that works perfectly. And then, they can transfer it to a recipient, any recipient, regardless of blood type or donor match results. Isn’t that wild?" Meghan grinned at her. "That means ultimately, you would never die. You could still be alive with all your parts functioning at one hundred and twenty." She took another sip of her Coke.
"Interesting." Frankly, Brenda didn’t give a flying rat fart about anything at this point. She tossed the empty pizza box in the overstuffed garbage bag by the front door and decided to shower while she could still muster the energy to move. "I’ll take out the trash in the morning. I’m going to get ready for bed. Goodnight, Meghan." Without waiting for a reply, Brenda hobbled down the hallway, cursing her foolish vanity for buying the shoes with the pointy toes.
The next morning she returned to work with a sweater. Maria arrived at nine, wearing black bags under eyes and a pink bubblegum suit. She looked like she'd been in a three-ring fight with a bottle of calamine lotion.
"Feeling okay," Brenda asked, glancing up from her computer screen.
"My head is killing me," Maria snapped. "Forward my calls to voicemail and do not disturb me." She scissored off, her cankles wobbling in her black four-inch stilettos.
The intercom buzzed shortly. "There’s a plant on my desk." Maria sounded angry enough to rip out someone's tongue by the bloody root and serve it to them for dinner.
Brenda forced her voice to be as pleasant as possible, but it was difficult when dealing with Bitchzilla. "Would you like me to remove it for you?"
"Yes. The horrid thing is blocking my computer."
Brenda went and got the plant as Maria scowled like she’d just eaten something distasteful disagreeing with her acidic person, like a spoonful of sugar. "Don’t just stand there and gawk at me. Take that to Rita or someone else ill from H.R."
Brenda stifled a nasty retort and gritted her teeth. "What floor?"
"Six, the floor for staff patients only," Maria mumbled with her head buried in her big, black purse. She didn’t even look up as Brenda left.
Brenda carried the hulking plant to the elevator and jabbed the button for the sixth floor. She rode and fumed in silence while a string quartet played Abba’s Fernando.
She found Rita sleeping in a private room. Rita looked so helpless, her face dwarfed by a monstrous head bandage. Brenda set the plant down on the high rolling breakfast table resting over Rita’s legs, so she would see it when she woke. Curious, Brenda wondered why Rita had been admitted. She reached for the clipboard at the foot of the bed.
Medical leave, partial lobe removal.
Brenda’s spine tingled and she jumped back from the bed remembering the conversation with her roommate the night before. Meghan’s voice echoed in her head: He claims technology is so far advanced they can remove part of a person’s organ, any organ, and clone a whole new one that works perfectly. She dismissed the preposterous notion. This was a fine hospital and this was just too bizarre, a place of medicine and healing engaged in acts of -
"Good morning, dear Brenda," Mr. Braeburn greeted her from the doorway.
Brenda’s fingers slipped from the clipboard and it clattered to the floor. Fear beat its raspy wings in her throat and panic screamed in her white hot lungs, as she struggled to breathe normally and willed her body to move slow and casual, smiling pleasantly at Mr. Braeburn as she headed for the doorway, her feet itching to flee, to run, to escape. Her mind raced with wildfire accusations she could not even fathom, as she realized with cold horror that Rita was a donor for one of the founding fathers of the hospital. They hadn’t died naturally and they hadn’t disappeared on a train. They were right here, carrying out their research. And Mr. Braeburn was one of them.
"I believe you dropped Miss Rita’s file." Mr. Braeburn stooped to pick up the clipboard, entering the room and clearing the doorway for Brenda to leave. He frowned. She knew. And she must be stopped. He started towards her.
"I was dropping off a plant." Brenda edged towards the door, her voice shaky.
"How sweet of you. And how are you, today? Healthy, I presume? Your skin has a nice, rosy glow." He moved to touch a worn hand to her cheek as she froze. It felt cold as a scalpel and she flinched. "Do you moisturize?"
Cringing, she pushed his hand away, swallowing the burning screams in her throat. "I have to go," she gasped, walking deliberately slow. She saw Mr. Braeburn pick up the phone by the door and without glancing back, Brenda dashed down the hall, ducking into a crowd of medical students headed for the elevator, praying they wouldn’t notice she wasn’t wearing a white coat. Slumping, she tilted her head forward so her long hair hid her face. Her heart was beating so fast. She put a hand to her mouth to stifle a scream as she saw Keith, along with Dr. Wilkenstein and Dr. Humphreys, marching towards her in blue surgical scrubs, and she shoved the med students out of the way as she sprinted for the stairs.
"Brenda," Keith yelled, waving after her.
A few nosey nurses peered out from the nurses’ station.
"Stop her! She’s a patient and she’s very sick," Keith cried, the nurses running behind him.
They tackled and pinned her in the stairwell. Brenda shouted, struggling as the cold linoleum pressed against her cheek and a sharp pain bloomed in her knee as it struck a stair tread. She kicked and tried to bite, but she was easily restrained. A huffing, red-faced Keith peered down at her along with her a very pale, heaving Dr. Wilkenstein and a scowling Dr. Humphreys. Dr. Humphreys knelt beside Brenda and pulled a long syringe from his pocket.
"Please, don’t do this," Brenda whimpered. "Please, please, please" Brenda pleaded over and over, spittle flying from her lips.
"You’ll feel better soon, Brenda," Keith murmured, false concern darkening his blue eyes. "Can someone get us a gurney?" Brenda collapsed, breathing evenly as two of the nurses stood watch over her limp body, while another left for a gurney.
Brenda remembered the hot sting of the needle and then blackness. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been out. Her head hurt and her mouth was dry. Dazed and disoriented, she caught the reflection of her face in the reflective metal dome of the surgical light overhead, shiny and slick with sweat. A nauseating wave crashed over her as she saw her body covered in blue sheets, except for her abdomen swabbed with yellow iodine. She spied a tray of shiny surgical instruments arranged in neat rows. No! She wouldn't let them do this.
"She’s awake, doctor," a nurse said.
"Please, help me," Brenda begged the nurse. The nurse wouldn't let this happen. Someone would call the police and tell them she’d been kidnapped. Brenda struggled against the restraints chaining her wrists to the bed.
Dr. Faulkings’ face loomed above her, his head bandaged in white surgical gauze. Brenda smelled strong garlic on his breath as he spoke, revealing two rows of uneven yellowed teeth. "Glad, you could join us, Brenda."
She dug her fingers into her restraints, ignoring the flash of pain caused by the I.V. in her hand. She had to get out of here. Now!
"Nurse Mia, I think we’re ready," Dr. Faulkings said with a hungry leer.
"Sleep well, Brenda." Mr. Braeburn beamed, winking, as he administered a powerful anesthetic through her I.V. line.
Brenda watched the light shrinking to a pinhole, spiraling down a deep, black rabbit hole. Her wrists slackened in her restraints.
Dr. Faulkings raised his glinting scalpel. "Shall we begin?"
© 2008 Nora B. Peevy
Bio: Nora B. Peevy is a writer/artist and stay-at-home mom to her three bearded dragons, two cats, and her husband. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she now lives in Dallas, Texas where she spends her time stalking werewolves, vampires, zombies, and other creepies. Her story La Nuit de la chat noir appeared in the June 1, 2008 Crimson Highway; her poetry has appeared in various small-press publications.
E-mail: Nora B. Peevy/a>
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.