Cassie tapped on the door of Doc’s room. “Open up. I can do this all day, you know.”
“Suit yourself,” came the muffled voice from inside.
“We need you in the clinic.”
“You can handle it without me.”
“Not if I’m standing here waiting for you to open this door.”
There was a sound of things being moved around, then of the interior lock being swung back. The door opened a few inches and Doc peeked out, pale and rumpled, with red, puffy eyes. “Satisfied? Now go the fuck away.”
He started to close the door but Cassie wedged her foot in the crack. “Stop this craziness. No one is mad at you. We want you to come back.”
“You can’t walk away from your responsibilities just because you couldn’t save Nisha. You weren’t able to save the guy in a coma, either.”
“That was different. He was brought in that way.” He stepped back and let Cassie into the room. “I had months to figure out what to do with Nisha. I read up on eclampsia and seizures, but—”
Cassie waved a hand. “You didn’t have the tools to do the job. Move on. The baby needs you. Rochelle is overwhelmed and I can’t spend all day at the clinic. I have gardens to oversee and I have to go the library and get a book about goats.”
“Goats?” Doc frowned in confusion.
“We traded for one so we could have milk for the baby.”
“And he’s drinking it?”
Doc sat on the edge of the unmade bed.
“Come back. It’s really okay.” Cassie ran a hand through her hair. What would entice him? “Zach is better.” At the flicker of interest in his eyes, she went on. “He’s sitting up now and able to eat a little. We gave him some cereal the guys foraged, mushed up in goat milk.”
“So the growth hormone does work.”
“Come see for yourself. The Pharms have May under surveillance, so she can’t come. You’re the only other one who knows what to look for.”
The excitement in his eyes dimmed. “You can take notes as well as I can.”
“No. I’ve got too much else to do.” She grabbed him by the wrist and pulled. “Quit hiding or people really will think you did something wrong.” She looked into his eyes. “Please? You called me your friend the other day. Would a friend lie to you?” She drew a plastic bag from a pocket. “I brought you this, since I figured you might be hungry.”
“Galahad and David had a good foraging day.”
Doc scooped the cereal into his mouth. “Okay,” he said. “Let me get cleaned up.”
* * *
Doc examined the baby in perfunctory fashion while Rochelle rattled off feeding times, how much he ate, how often he slept, and what the contents of his diapers looked like. She had taken over the nursery Nisha created and was working through the baby books with gusto. If Doc was impressed by her maternal instincts, he gave no sign and instead just seemed glad he didn’t have to deal with the matter.
Zach was who he really cared about, and he spent a long time reading Cassie’s notes and checking vital signs. “This is amazing. It’s like the whole process went into reverse.”
“Didn’t you think that’s how it would work?” Cassie said.
“I actually thought it would produce stasis—no change—if it did anything at all. Instead it looks like the hormone masks whatever signal the virus gets from the telomeres, giving the body’s immune system a chance to fight back.”
“And it’s been one heck of a fight,” Zach said through lips that were still cracked and oozing. “I was expecting to see angels next time I opened my eyes. Either that or the devil.”
“Oh, you’re in hell. Trust me on that one.” Doc picked up Zach’s wrist so he could check his pulse.
“How long before I’m up and around?” Zach examined the bruises on his free arm, then wiped a bit of blood away from his nose. “I have a feeling I still look a little scary.”
Doc let go of Zach’s wrist and made some notes on his chart. “You’ll need awhile to heal completely. Your body’s priorities are on the inside first, then the outside. According to your chart, there’s still blood in your urine, indicating you’ve got problems with your kidneys. You’re not out of the woods yet.”
“But I’ll get there, right?”
Doc hesitated and glanced at Cassie before speaking. “This treatment is experimental. We don’t really know how long it will take for you to recover or how long your recovery will last.”
“So this could just be temporary?”
“Yes,” Cassie told him.
Zach considered. “I don’t know that I want to be your guinea pig. If this is something that’s going to wear off and I’m going to have to go through the hell of dying again, you should’ve just let me go.” At the stricken look on Doc’s face, he added, “Meaning no offense, of course. You’re a good guy, Doc, and I know you mean well. It’s just not what I would’ve chosen for myself, is all.”
“Not even for the greater good?” Cassie asked, feeling stupid even as she said the words.
“What good am I accomplishing, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“We found a way to slow the Telo,” Doc explained. “We think it holds the clue to the child kidnappings by the Obits.”
“So I have to die twice so you can play detective?” Zach shifted his wasted form on his mattress. “You’re lucky I’m too tired to be pissed.”
They tried to reassure him, but Zach had nothing more to say. Doc and Cassie went into the next room to talk. By this point Doc was nearly in tears with frustration. “I should’ve never let May plant that crazy idea in my head. What was I thinking?”
“You thought you were doing him a favor,” Cassie said. “We all did.”
“The favor of being allowed to hope, so he can go through all that suffering again.” He pounded a table with his fist. “What’s wrong with me?”
“You saw someone dying and wanted to help. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“But help how? ‘First, do no harm.’ Hippocratic Oath.”
“You took it?”
“Well, no. But—”
“Look, we can’t undo the past. There’s plenty of people who would’ve kissed your feet for a few extra hours and you’ve given Zach…how long?”
Doc shoved his fists in the pockets of his lab coat. “I don’t know. The research indicates a need for repeat doses to maintain the effect, but a rat’s lifespan is so compressed compared to that of a human that I don’t know how often he would have to re-dose.”
“Kids die all the time on the streets. If we keep our eyes open—”
“I don’t think so.” Doc shuddered. “Cutting up the newly dead isn’t something I want to start doing regularly.”
“So we’ll wait this out and take notes as things unfold.”
“Yeah.” Doc sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands.
Cassie hesitated, then put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re not a bad person.”
“No,” came Doc’s muffled voice. “I’m a research doctor, just like my father. Only unlike him, I don’t have the decency to ask my human subjects for permission.”